Wednesday, January 09, 2013

A Wish List for Krampus

It's always a bit of a gamble to sit down at the computer and start writing one of these weekly posts.  I don’t know how it works for other writers, but for me, the writing process is inherently unpredictable; I may think I know what I’m going to write, but once the fingertips get within range of the keyboard, all bets are off.  A news story off the net, a stray passage from some old book, a series of those things we like to call coincidences because we haven’t yet noticed that a belief in coincidence is the most popular superstition of the age of science—take your pick, it can be any of those things or others, but all of a sudden what should have been a quiet evening of sipping tea and anatomizing the decline and fall of industrial civilization becomes a leap into the dark.
This time, it was a question raised by a reader of last week’s post.  That post, as my readers will recall, ended with some suggestions about how readers in the world’s industrial nations might consider changing their own lives, to cut back on the burden their lifestyles put on the living Earth. The reader in question applauded those suggestions, but asked what suggestions I might have if I were addressing an audience of scientists and engineers—that is, people who might be able to come up with new technologies to help cushion our species’ face-first collision with the brick wall of planetary limits. What would I want them to explore?

I confess the question took me entirely by surprise, and I stammered something about how it was an interesting point, but I didn’t expect ever to have the chance to address an audience of scientists and engineers along those lines.  Of course the inevitable result followed promptly, as an assortment of scientists and engineers popped up to say that they were regular readers of mine, and they would be interested in hearing my suggestions for what they could do.

It’s a far more complex question than it might seem at first glance.  To begin with, there are at least two limits that nearly all attempts to imagine technologies for the future systematically duck. The first of those limits come out of the laws of thermodynamics, which dictate that the amount of work you can get out of any energy source is a function of the difference between the concentration of energy in that energy source and the background concentration in the environment. Fossil fuels are extraordinarily concentrated energy sources—a single gallon of gasoline, remember, contains as much energy as one ton of fully charged lead-acid auto batteries—and nearly all of today’s technologies depend on that huge difference in energy concentration between the chemical energy of petroleum and other fossil fuels, on the one hand, and the ambient heat of the lower atmosphere on the other. 

The second limit comes out of White’s Law, which is arguably as important in human ecology as the laws of thermodynamics are in physics.  White’s Law states that the level of economic development possible in any society is determined by the amount of energy per capita at its disposal.  The immense infrastructure that makes today’s industrial world lifestyles possible depends on constant flows of concentrated energy, not merely to power it but to provide it with raw materials, spare parts, skilled and unskilled labor, and all its other necessities, and these requirements each have further requirements of their own, cascading outwards in a net of dependencies that ultimately includes much of the planet. Nearly all of today’s technologies depend on our current industrial infrastructure or a close facsimile thereof, not only to keep them fueled and running, but to give what they do some value. 

These two limits interact in ways that are fatal to most projects for future technologies.  Any future society in the real world is going to have to get by on a lot less energy, and a lot less of the products of energy, than people in today’s industrial societies are used to having at their beck.  This means that any advanced technology will have to compete with other technologies for a share of the limited energy that’s available, and it will also have to compete with other, less technologically complex ways of accomplishing whatever it is that it does.  Furthermore, the relevance of any advanced technology to a future society will depend on how complex an infrastructure that society would need to build the technology, fuel it, maintain it, and give its work economic value.  Whether or not computers will be viable in a future society, in other words, is not a question of whether it’s technically possible to build them; it depends, first, on whether all the things needed to build, power, maintain, and get useful work out of them can be provided; second, whether other, simpler technologies can provide the same services at a lower cost in energy, resources, and labor; and third, whether the sharply limited resources available to a future society would be better spent on some other project altogether.

All these issues will be familiar to regular readers of this blog.  It’s also probably worth saying that while I try to stay abreast of major developments in half a dozen sciences, there’s no way any human being can keep up with everything that’s being done by the world’s scientists and engineers, and so any guesses I may offer here may already have been rendered unnecessary or proven impossible by somebody sitting at a lab bench in Cleveland, Cape Town, or Kowloon.  I’m still going to take the risk of making some suggestions, but in a bit I’ll also have a challenge to offer to the scientists, engineers, and basement inventors among my readers.

First, though, my wish list.  In honor of the holiday season just past, we can call it a solstice list—those of my readers who celebrate Christmas instead can call it a Christmas list if they wish.  Still, I’d like to ask that the list not be sent to Santa Claus.  No, this list is for Krampus.

Krampus?  He’s a Yuletide figure across much of central Europe.  Horned, clawed, covered with shaggy black hair, and equipped with a long red tongue, he carries a birch switch, has a basket on his back, and visits houses on long winter nights. Good little children wake to find gold coins in their shoes; bad little children get thwacked with the birch switch; and really, really bad little children—the sort of spoiled, shrieking little horrors who take consumer society’s cult of self-centered greed to its logical extreme—get popped into the basket on Krampus’s back and taken away by him, and nobody ever sees them again.  I suspect that lingering belief in Krampus may be one reason why children in central Europe are by and large better behaved than their American equivalents.

Krampus, in other words, is all about consequences.  That in itself arguably makes him a better Yuletide figure than Santa Claus, whose ancient custom of putting a lump of coal in the stockings of offensive children is hardly even a memory these days.  Still, that’s only part of the reason I propose to send my wish list to Krampus.

The fact of the matter is that I’ve been bedeviled by Krampus over the holiday season just past.  Part of that’s due to the publication of a new fantasy novel, Krampus the Yule Lord, in which the horned Yuletide spirit escapes from half a millennium of imprisonment to do battle with Santa Claus for dominion over the holiday season: something, that is, like a cross between A Christmas Carol and Prometheus Unbound. It’s got a portrait of Krampus on the front cover, and for months, when I visited libraries or walked past bookstores or waited in train stations next to one of those wretched little newsstands with a few books tucked in among the junk food and the magazines, there he’d be, leering out from the shelves. Meanwhile Krampus-themed holiday cards arrived from friends, as did emails from other friends asking me if I’d ever heard about...well, you get the picture.

Mind you, in my line of work, you learn early on how to recognize when an archetype is trying to get your attention.  Why exactly this particular archetype is clearing its throat and casting significant looks in the direction of a mild and middle-aged archdruid is something that I’ll doubtless figure out in due time. Meanwhile, though, it seems sensible enough to offer Krampus my wish list for next Yuletide, or whichever Yuletide is convenient; perhaps he can cash in some of those gold coins for a few research grants to get the process rolling.

So here are the things I’d like to see under the solstice tree one of these days, if a few scientists and engineers are willing to be Krampus’s little helpers and put them there.

At the top of the list—well, let’s start by talking a bit about the most important legacy our civilization is going to leave to the future.  No, it’s not any of the things for which we like to preen ourselves; it’s the vast quantities of nuclear waste we’re heaping up for tomorrow to deal with.  I don’t know words sufficiently forceful in any language to describe the sheer brutal selfishness of the attitude that insists that our supposed need to prop up our extravagant lifestyles a little longer justifies generating wastes that remain lethal for a quarter of a million years, while doing absolutely nothing to keep them away from the biosphere for more than the smallest fraction of that interval.

Still, that’s business as usual in most of the world’s industrial nations these days.  Sooner or later—probably after we get the statistically inevitable nuclear waste accident that turns a couple of hundred square miles or so of some industrial country into a dead zone nobody will be able to enter for the next millennium—finding some less self-destructively stupid way of dealing with the backlog of nuclear waste is going to be a major issue. When that time arrives, I’d like a technology that can do the trick:  if at all possible, some way of making spent fuel rods and other high-level waste physically stable, chemically inert, and biologically inaccessible. Oh, and it needs to be tested thoroughly; this is not a situation in which it’s helpful to rely on the alleged properties of vaporware.

So that’s one thing I’d like to see appear under the solstice tree.  Another, along similar lines, is a more thoroughly developed system of bioremediation for getting persistent poisons out of soil and water.  High-level nuclear waste isn’t the only kind of poison industrial civilization likes to produce, and most of the others aren’t even sequestered temporarily in storage pools.  All over the world, a great deal of soil and water has been contaminated with toxic metals and other pollutants, and these are things that our descendants are going to have to deal with for a very long time to come.

Bioremediation is one of the few effective low-tech methods for dealing with that.  It so happens that some plants, and some other organisms, selectively take up toxic substances from the soil and concentrate them in their tissues.  Experiments have been done showing that it’s possible, using repeated plantings of the right plants, to extract enough toxins from contaminated soils to make them safe again. A great deal of further work needs to be done in order to evolve a sufficiently extensive toolkit of bioremediation methods that can be applied, without high-tech infrastructure, to clean up the mess our civilization is going to leave behind it.  It should have plants and other organisms suited to the widest possible range of ecosystems and climatic conditions, and it should also include relatively simple tests—the sort of things that can be done in a makeshift lab using readily available reagents—for sorting out what toxic substances are in a given body of soil or water, and need to be extracted.

Right next to that kit, I’d like to see something a little more literary—a good clear manual of ecology for laypeople, written in relatively simple language, focusing on the principles that our descendants are going to need to know as they contend with the heap of problems we’re leaving them. William Catton has usefully described ecology as “the study of the processes that matter;” our civilization has tried to pretend that those processes don’t matter, and the consequences of that pretense are among the most important factors tipping said civilization into the rubbish heap of history just now.  It would be particularly nice if the manual were to walk its readers through the scientific method, teaching them how to formulate hypotheses and test them, so that the most valuable part of the grand intellectual adventure of science doesn’t get lost irretrievably during the dark age ahead of us.

Finally, I’d like to see a way to turn sunlight into electricity that doesn’t depend on silicon chip fabrication and doping, or any of the other high-end infrastructure of the modern industrial system.  I’ve pointed out in previous posts that the way we use electricity nowadays, with sprawling regional grids to convey power from centrally located power plants to wall sockets that are constantly supplied with current, is as wasteful as it is unsustainable.  That doesn’t mean that the future must do without electricity; it means that electricity in the future is far more likely to be generated and distributed on a village-scale or homescale basis, and used when it’s available, however intermittently that may be.  Generating electricity from wind and water will be easy for our descendants even in the absence of an industrial system—generators suited to that use can be built easily enough in a garage workshop, and so can waterwheels and wind turbines quite adequate for the purpose.

Solar electrical generation is considerably more challenging.  Photovoltaic (PV) cells, the mainstay of most solar electric systems today, require much the same manufacturing infrastructure as any other silicon-based semiconductor, and the likelihood that chip fabrication plants and everything needed to keep them running will be available in a deindustrial world is probably too small to worry about. The question remaining is whether there’s a less infrastructure-intensive way either to make PV cells, or to turn light into electricity in some other way.  My hunch—and it’s only a hunch, I admit—is that thermoelectric generators using the Seebeck effect, and simple parabolic or conical mirrors to collect light, are a good bet; the technology’s simple enough that an ordinarily enterprising medieval alchemist could have knocked one together while waiting for the athanor to get up to heat. Still, it will take a good engineer or two to tinker with the technology, try different options, and work up a prototype that can show whether my hunch is right; meanwhile, there are no doubt plenty of other options to explore.

So that’s my first tentative list.  If I ever were to be plopped down in front of an audience of scientists and engineers, though, I’d get through the list as quickly as possible, and concentrate thereafter on the far more interesting project of seeing if the scientists and engineers can come up with other proposals to add to it.  The challenge there, of course, would lie in getting them to grips with the hard limits of a deindustrializing world, where population, gross domestic product, and resource availability are all declining steadily.  In such a world, as already noted, the only technologies that can count on being preserved are those that can be kept running in an environment of scarcity, provide goods or services valuable enough to justify continued investment, and do so more economically than any other way of getting the same goods and services. These are not constraints that today’s scientists and engineers are used to facing, and getting them to take them seriously may take a certain amount of patience.

Still, it’s arguably worth doing, and for that reason I’m going to propose the challenge I mentioned earlier in this post. The peak oil science fiction contest this blog hosted back in 2011 left me very impressed with the creativity of this blog’s readership—those of you who weren’t following this blog yet back then can see for yourself in the pages of the anthology that resulted from that contest, After Oil—and I think it’s time to draw on that same resource again. So...drumroll please...we’re going to have another contest.

Here’s what I’m proposing. I’d like to ask this blog’s readers to break out their word processing programs again, but this time I’m looking for nonfiction papers with a scientific or technical slant, written for an intelligent nonprofessional audience.  Each paper should either describe a  problem that will confront the deindustrializing world in the course of the Long Descent, or propose a practical solution to some problem of this kind, or both.  Successful entries will start from the assumption that the unraveling of industrial society sketched out in this blog and my books The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future is a reality that has to be accepted, and go from there to deal with specific challenges that will follow from the shape of that future.

Please don’t simply rehash some issue that’s already been discussed a godzillion times already.  On the other hand, you can certainly propose a novel solution to a familiar problem, just as you can come up with an unfamiliar problem that has some readily available solution; you can take a solution that’s currently in the conceptual stage, build a prototype, and report on it, and you can also present a problem that nobody’s thought of yet and say "we need to come up with some effective response to this." If your solution relies on vaporware—that is to say, theoretical technologies that haven’t been built or tested yet—say so, and don’t pretend that you can be sure in advance that it will work as well as you hope; you might also suggest some ways in which your vaporware can be tested for efficacy once a prototype gets built. If you build a working prototype of your proposed technology and describe how it worked, on the other hand, you get a good dollop of extra credit.

I should stress here that I’m not looking for vague generalities, wishful thinking, or another round of apocalyptic fantasies.  The Long Descent is going to be a very challenging process all ‘round, but a great many of those challenges will be concrete problems that can be solved, or at least ameliorated, by applying the methods of science and engineering, or of plain pragmatic common sense.  Creative thought is important here, but so is a solid grasp of the realities we face, backed up by a clear sense of what’s already known and has already been done; thus the essays that will come out in front in this contest will be those that combine original thinking with plenty of relevant footnotes.

Essays should be between 1500 and 6000 words in length, not counting footnotes and references; they should be posted somewhere online—if you don’t have a blog, Blogger will happily set you up with one—and a link posted on the comments page here. As before, the best dozen or so essays, as selected by me, will be going into an anthology, which I’ll edit and introduce; whatever royalties there may be will be split among the authors.  Entries to the contest should be posted online by November 1, 2013.  After all, Krampus will doubtless need a little time to get the results ready to tuck underneath the solstice tree.


1 – 200 of 216   Newer›   Newest»
Stuart Jeffery said...

I think that the version of concentrated solar that powers a turbine is already happening,

Joel Caris said...


I'm not really a scientist or engineer--though I may have a mind for it, just lacking in training--so I won't be contributing a paper for this contest. But I sure as heck am excited to read the entries! It should make for some fascinating reading and consideration, if the general discussion amongst your readership here in the comments is any indication.

In the meantime, you have me researching the Seebeck effect. The thought of a relatively simple to manufacture technology that would turn sunlight into electricity is a hopeful thought, indeed. A little electricity goes a long way toward providing some of the basic comforts and joys of modern society.

(A lot seems, as often as not, to go too far and bring you back round to the malaise of too much technology, distraction and meaninglessness.)

Now, if someone can come up with a straightforward and sustainable technology to deal with nuclear wastes, what a legacy that would be to leave behind.

Loch Wade said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your take on the nuclear waste issue. It would be wonderful if we could come up with a way to clean it up.

Unfortunately, if such a method or device were to be invented, it would only pave the way for a sudden profusion of nuclear power plants, which by themselves, even if the spent fuel can be dealt with, are more dangerous than I can describe.

Spent nuclear fuel... it simply won't be dealt with, even if it starts to contaminate vast areas of the earth. If we were going to do something about it, we would have already, when we were flush with cash. There simply is no way to make money off of the stuff, even in cleaning it up. Your own definition of what will make the triage list in an energy-compromised economy prevents spent nuclear fuel/nuclear waste from ever being dealt with.

"...the only technologies that can count on being preserved are those that can be kept running in an environment of scarcity, provide goods or services valuable enough to justify continued investment, and do so more economically than any other way of getting the same goods and services.

I'm afraid nuclear waste alone will cause the Descent to be much more precipitous than any of us would like.

John Michael Greer said...

Stuart, granted, but that's a highly centralized and rather demanding way to get electricity from sunlight, and the conversion efficiencies (sunlight to heat, heat to mechanical energy, mechanical energy to electricity) are subject to all the usual limits. Thus my interest in other approaches.

Joel, I've wished for some time that I had the time and the resources to try piecing together a simple Seebeck Effect generator using one of those evacuated-tube solar collectors, a conical mirror, and a bunch of thermocouples on the bottom end. It seems as though it would be a fairly simple project for those with the necessary skills.

Loch Wade, precipitous, probably not; more miserable, certainly. My hope is that panic following a major accident will provide the incentive to do something while we still have the capacity.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Lacking any scientific training I’ll have to pass up this particular challenge. Nevertheless – and perhaps this has been influenced by my plans to go into the sustainable small scale charcoal business – I can’t help but think that this particular form of black stuff holds some interesting possibilities for the future. Specifically, I’m thinking of biochar, to help restore degraded land (of which there is no shortage), and also charcoal’s ability to act as a water filter. And, hey, it’s also a useful fuel that is carbon neutral (if coppiced), easily controllable and doesn’t give people asthma if they are using it to cook indoors.

I’ll be doing my own pseudo-scientific experiments into all three of these possibilities as the years roll by, and will report my results.

As for Krampus and Yuletide, some of your readers might be interested to know that Christmas here in Denmark is still called Yuletide (albeit spelled Jul Tid) – which basically translates as ‘wheel time’. If one ever needed convincing that the Nordic countries never really took to Christianity, here it is. I just managed to spend a whole festive season without seeing a single Santa Claus, reference to Jesus, the Three Kings or anything else vaguely related to Biblical stories. We danced around a pine tree, roasted a duck and there were pixies aplenty, but jolly fat men bearing consumer goods and red nosed reindeers were sorely lacking.

Thijs Goverde said...

Krampus, eh? I'd never heard of him, but that you should mention him is a funny, well, coincidence - for a variety of reasons, I've become incresingly unhappy with the racism in Zwarte Piet, who is a part of my favourite Dutch tradition and clearly related to Krampus.
So thanks for that food for thought!

As for your competition... Woot! I am technically illiterate so I won't be submitting anything myself, but I'm very interested to read the submissions and start becoming a little less technologically illiterate. Maybe even clear out the workbench in the basement...

By the way, Chris - I heard the forest fires in Australia are worse than ever this year, as are the tempatures - 50 and up!
I hope you're OK up there!

Kevin said...

I love the concept. Permit me to suggest an additional project for the cleanup of toxins. The great Pacific garbage gyres pollute vast expanses of that ocean, mostly with plastic debris, and are very damaging to marine life and to birds. A viable scheme for cleaning up the mess, if implemented, could be a great boon to the biosphere and to future humanity. I haven't the technical knowledge to address this myself, but suggest it in case those who do may be reading these comments.

About the only technical skill I personally have that might be applicable would be making parabolic dishes to focus sunlight on a Seebek Effect generator. I'm rather fanatic about them. I do wonder what materials and techniques one would use to make a high-reflectancy mirror, capable of being compoundly curved, in a postindustrial situation. Currently, the cheapest way of doing this is with aluminum foil or the mirrored interiors of discarded food wrappers. Junked CDs are a little harder to come by at this point. But I hardly expect these materials to be widely available once deindustrialization has gotten well under way.

Some way to popularize tree planting on a large scale, and simultaneously organize and educate people how best to go about it properly, also seems like a good idea. There are so many things it will be needed for: reforestation, biodiversity, timber for building and boatbuilding, fuel for wood-burning stoves, etc.

Alison said...

you mention bio-remediation by using plants and such to "pull" toxic material from the contaminated earth. I have always wondered about what is then done with the plants/fungi/whatever that are now "contaminated" in exchange... Surely they cannot be composted? While I heartily concur in the need for cleaning up damaged places, it has always sounded a little bit like simply moving toxicity from one place to another...

Grebulocities said...

JMG, thank you so much for this post. I definitely intend to enter your contest. It’s late now, so I’ll digest your post more tomorrow and see if I’ve come up with any other ideas, but just to start:

What do you think of genetic engineering? By this I don’t mean inserting herbicide resistance genes into crop plants and patenting the resulting organism – I strongly object to that sort of behavior, as it goes against everything science stands for and diverts a substantial part of the world’s food supply into the coffers of a few corporations. But recent advances in molecular biology have allowed us to determine the function of many of the tens of thousands of genes that are located in any given organism, and it is possible to clone potentially useful genes into organisms that don’t ordinarily have them in order to develop new strains with useful functions. We can also knock genes out or upregulate them to increase their function.

This sort of technology is only going to be possible until science funding is slashed enough to render molecular biology research unaffordable. This will probably happen within the next decade or two. But, if we can engineer organisms (usually bacteria or fungi) with the capability to perform efficient bioremediation of chemical pollutants that are difficult to break down, the biosphere might benefit. The genetic changes are usually stable, so that a strain we create will retain the changes we have introduced over many generations. Thus, a genetically engineered organism used for bioremediation, produced when resources are still available, may be able to retain its function even after humans have lost the ability to do molecular biology.

Genetic engineering might also used to optimize the production of biogas in a fermenter or to produce cellulosic ethanol more efficiently. In both cases, only the C, H, and (sometimes) O in the biomass would be used to produce energy – the other elements could be returned to the soil.
I’d be the first to admit that genetic engineering is not some sort of panacea, and that GMOs could end up creating unanticipated ecological damage. But it is a relatively powerful technology, and one we’ll probably only be able to use for a limited time. The near future will probably involve many choices between certain environmental calamity and possible problems, and scientists and engineers are increasingly being forced into the position of having to gamble to minimize our damage.

Is this the sort of thing that you would be willing to consider? I ask mostly because my work involves genetic engineering of fungi for pretreatment of biomass to produce cellulosic ethanol more efficiently. Biofuels are bad in a number of ways, but they may be the only source of liquid fuels once fossil fuels are depleted, and we are trying to reduce their impact on food supplies and the environment.

I’m also going to try to think of other things that would meet the criteria a technology would have to satisfy in an era of resource decline. There are a number of alternate designs for solar cells, for instance, but I’m not sure that any of them would be less dependent on fossil fuels than our current silicon designs. I’ll look up some things and see what I find.

Sea spray said...

hi JMG
i think that Dye-sensitized solar cells should fulfill your needs for solar electricity generation, although less efficient than silicon cells they are almost cost competitive and can be made at home with a few simple chemicals and raspberry or blackberries

as for solar thermal have you looked at a sterling engine. it might be better in many situations.

the best way of disposing of nuclear wast i have heard of it vitrifying it so it is encased in and chemically bonded to glass. in this form it is non water soluble and apart from the radiation it is inert, if it were dropped above a undersea tectonic subduction zone it would bury itself in the sea-floor mud and eventulay be drawn down into the mantle and out of harms way, as it is encased in glass it could not devolve into to seawater and the radiation it released would be absorbed by the water
hope this is some help

Kieran O'Neill said...

I'm guessing that another item on your wishlist would be the kinds of technologies available to ruinmen in your Star's Reach novel that enable them to reliably detect those industrial and nuclear contaminants.

Sven said...

How widely is the premise of this contest open to interpretation?

An ongoing thought experiment of mine (which is threatening to become a life's ambition) is the creation of the kind of social organisation that can survive the long descent (I'm thinking in order to preserve skills and knowledge, but I'm sure that if a working prototype could be developed it could be put to use for all sorts).

While one could, for the sake of argument, describe a social organisation as a technology, I suspect it is outside of the remit of your contest. But maybe I shall write something on it anyway for my own benefit.

EntropiansRUs said...

On 11th March, 2011, while my own city was still being battered by aftershocks from the quake that gutted it's centre a little over two weeks earlier, I saw images of reactors blowing their tops in north-east Japan, and heard a silent (Bart Simpson style) “uh-oh” go off in my head. That quickly put local problems into perspective.

It didn't take much to Google the “Chernobyl exclusion zone”, and do a quick translation of that to Japan. OK, there are lots of variables which could affect the actual size and shape of the contaminated area, but my initial guess was that the situation could quite easily render a metropolitan area of tens of millions of people – i.e. greater Tokyo area – uninhabitable, if not eventually all of Japan. In due course, I wouldn't be surprised if that did happen, especially given the apparently farcical response to dealing with the situation, and ongoing lack of containment. And as so much has been leaking into the ocean, the damage is likely to be global.

So if this festering mess of a disaster isn't enough to cause panic and provoke some action to deal with the contamination, then I doubt anything will, at least until it's too late (assuming that it isn't already, and that the problems are tractable anyway).

Of course, the nuclear industry has no major incentive to do anything about it (other than manage the spin and downplay the damage). Which, given that the average person would prefer not to think about the disaster or related issues, probably isn't half as difficult as it ought to be.

BoysMom said...

If there's a pharmacologist looking for ideas, I would dearly love to see a safe and effective do-it-at-home technique of producing an antibiotic or three--preferably both suitable for injection and topical usage. Availability of antibiotics eliminate a heck of a lot of suffering.

Leo said...

Glad the only reactors here in Australia are research or medical. And the goverments never accepted the deal to take back uranium its sold. Only have the mines to deal with. Still, there are people that push for nuclear power, but with its high cost they're unlikely to be successful.

As for the solar electricty, the only other tech i can think of, other than engines or thermo-electric, is organic (plastic) solar cells made from a plant derived feedstock.

I can think of a couple simple problems and solutions (power a portable radio the same why Gravity lights are plus a collapsable pole), but nothing for a big paper. Mindyou, i'll be studing engineering next year and could always have something pop up. I get told Placements next week.

Johan said...

Dear mild-mannered middle-aged archdruid,

Thanks for again providing inspiration! I'm going to accept the challenge, but not quite on your terms. I've been gathering notes for a vaguely envisioned book on technology, and especially principles of technology and how they differ from principles found in living systems. An important part would be to sketch what a future "eco-technology" might look like. If Krampus is trying to talk to you, this post sounds like you're talking to me, so it's time to turn those notes into something more focused.

I won't suggest solutions for dealing with nuclear waste - what I have in mind is more like the ecology manual you mentioned, but dealing with the interface between technology and ecology, or between the made and the living. I don't know if it will result in anything that can enter the contest, but hopefully it will be worth doing anyway.

I'll post the blog address here once I've got one up and running.

I should note that the first inspiration for this project also came from you - from your thoughts on an ecotechnic society on this blog and in your book.

Mr Booch said...

Thank you for the excellent Archdruid Report - I have been following it now for several years and find it thought-provoking and reassuring that there is reason in the world.

Your post today and your reaction to the 'problem' of reactor waste has prompted me to respond.

Engineering solutions to the storage already exist. For example, vitrification and burial in a geologically stable environment. Deep mine shafts abound. The problem lies in the fear which has been whipped up around the whole topic. Society will not accept such a solution being implemented in their locality.

You imply that reactor waste is a Very Bad Thing and treat it in emotive terms as an 'everyone knows that' issue. When everyone knows something, it may be that they have been fed the line.

James Lovelock concisely summed up the misplaced fears due to misunderstandings in chapter 6 of "The Revenge of Gaia" and put the waste problem into context: the waste from a nuclear power plant amounts to approximately 1 cubic metre per year.

The long-term potency of radioactive substances is a subject which is often misunderstood too. Highly radioactive substances become inactive extremely quickly. Waste which might remain after 1/4 Million years is hardly hazardous in terms of its radioactivity. The problem is one of toxicity as is the case with many heavy elements which occur naturally in the environment.

Perversely, wildlife thrives where we have been excluded because of nuclear contamination. Chernobyl, nuclear weapon test sites, etc. Wildlife has greater and more immediate daily threats than the statistical reduction of life expectancy noted by actuaries.

Fear abounds over the emotive issue of radiation. I was in the Middle East last year installing X-Ray machines and encountered what was to me an initially unbelievable fear that X-Rays made things radioactive. This fear was widespread among people with no technical education, and meant that it took the best part of a year to get equipment imported and installed.

Fear is a wonderful lever with which to control people.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

"...or of plain pragmatic common sense"

In due time the western world will rediscover the value of dried cow dung as insulation, wall plaster and stove fuel. In India the rural folk still make their cow dung discs and use it for cooking and heating. You burn it and the mosquitoes keep away, too. A cow is an animal that just keeps giving.

If you have some cows, their dung is easier to fetch than firewood, too.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Panic following a major accident to nuclear facility, JM? Fukushima seems like a major one, with all the catastrophe not yet finished. Yet the response seems to have been weirdly zombified, amongst both public and power-wielders, with the Japanese government apparently intent on attempting more --quite hopeless -- BAU on nuclear power: carry on regardless and hope for the best.

There's this hunch in the air -- and of course being just that, it carries little weight as yet, but still -- that there are, perhaps, ways to transmute nuclides into stable, harmless material through microbiological pathways. If that is possible, then I expect either some human puffer or Mam Gaia herself will eventually find ways to set it going -- seeing as there's now this anthropogenic uptick in the availability of feedstock.

Odin's Raven said...

Progress might be made by continuing the work of unorthodox scientists like Louis Kervran, who asserted that plants and animals can transmute elements.

Extraordinary Biology

There seem to be a number of approaches to deactivating radiation:

These things are close to alchemy. Perhaps progress will be made if future societies become less materialistically 'scientific' as the concentrated material resources are used up.

Concentrated mental and spiritual energy may become more important than concentrated physical energy.

John D. Wheeler said...

The problem with "spent" nuclear fuel is the idea that there is any significant depletion. "Contaminated" is a far better word. The fuel rods become unusable because of the accumulation of nuclear byproducts. They still have approximately 95% of the fuel remaining. So reprocessing them is a better solution, as long as it can be done with a decent EROEI.

The benefits of bioaccumulation are not limited to bioremediation; the process can also be used as a form of mining. Brake fens are good enough at gathering arsenic that the ashes from burning them have a higher content than the ore that is commercially used.

As far as the contest goes, I would suggest looking at www.lowtechmagazine for inspiration about the writing. I'm sure if Kris De Decker enters, s/he'll win. If you're looking for ideas, has a lot of good ones that are begging to be written up.

Oh yes, thanks for the reference on White's Law, I hadn't heard it named before. That paragraph finally explained what's been bugging me about OSE. They are fully aware of the limits imposed by physics, but they don't seem to realize they will be in competition for scarce resources.

Dave Ruggiero said...

I saw an interesting article last year (I read a pay-to-read version In the New Yorker originally, but here's a summary: describing a scientist who had been working to develop what he called an "artificial leaf": a thin wafer that, when placed in water and exposed to sunlight, slowly conducted electrolysis and released a stream of hydrogen at one end and oxygen at the other. The gases could be stored in tanks and used as fuel sources later on, producing clean water in the process. Although the amount of energy produced this way was not astoundingly large, it was relatively resilient, simple to operate, and less dependent on rare elements than photovoltaic cells are. The researcher hoped that his research could someday be used to produce enough energy in a day to cut down on the amount of fuel wood needed in Third World homes, limiting deforestation and making clean water more available. Interestingly, what he did not claim to be able to do was to figure out a way to power industrial society with sunlight - he more or less admitted in the article that this would be close to impossible. But he said that all sorts of interesting ideas opened up in his research once he moved beyond that - basically, beyond the limiting paradigm that anything he created had to be able to replace fossil fuels. If you ignore that (impossible) criterion, he claimed, there were all sorts of useful projects out there waiting to be worked on.

tubaplayer said...

Ah JMG - how excellent!

The Krampus thing took me quite by surprise. As you know, I am now in Hungary and I had never come across the Krampus figure until I came to live here. Did not happen in the UK. Here in the village facsimiles of Mikulas and Krampusz go aboard on the evening of 6th December to every house in the village where there are children. Your comment about behaviour struck home too. In the whole village I only know of a single child that is ill-behaved and unruly. The children are disciplined to good behaviour gently but firmly from a very early age. Where I come from in the UK local custom was that the 'bad' children did not get coal but cabbage leaves and ashes.

I totally agree also with your sentiments about nuclear energy and waste. In a past life I had occasion to visit the Sellafield facility from time to time on official business. I found it the most sinister working environment that I had ever experienced.

The thermocouple thing sounds quite intriguing. I had thought of a solar powered Sterling engine with molten salt for the hot end but it would offer some challenges in terms of materials and technology and realise that those are likely to go away in the long descent, but maybe a reasonable stop-gap on the way.

Michelle said...

Well, I'm with Joel - not a scientist or engineer - but I will take on the challenge and do an essay on how go grow food without ever making a trip to a purveyor of chemicals. (Can't say without a trip to a store, since tools like a hoe and rake are really nice additions to a garden.) I'm really excited about this challenge - your readership is creative-minded and 'up' on subjects I've never contemplated. Thank you!

SMJ said...

This is an excellent idea for a competition! Gonna get my thinking cap on.

What's your opinion of the work of Open Source Ecology, JMG?

I quite like the idea of making useful machines from scrap, and I'm all for making the designs open source, but I wonder if their choice of machines is too much of an attempt to preserve the current (developed-world) way of life and mindset.

Diotima said...

John, bioremediation is one of the most hopeful and sustainable technologies I know of for detoxifying soil, particularly myco-remediation. As I’m sure you realize, bioremediation is mostly about bio-accumulation — concentrating the pollutant in plant tissues so it can be more easily recovered and/or disposed of. What’s most exciting about myco-remediation is the fact that a number of fungi secrete enzymes that actually break down many toxic substances into harmless, or less harmless substances, including petroleum products. Many also hyper-accumulate heavy metals, and there has been some fascinating work done on bio accumulation of radiation, and some studies done on melanin-containing fungi that use radiation to convert sunlight into chemical energy. If you have not yet read Paul Stamets’ book Mycelium Running, I highly recommend it.

Unknown said...

Long-distance communication is important. In an eletricity-scare future, it isn't likely that the internet, or sophisticated voice phone networks, will be much available. TV is problematic, and of course people uploading and downloading GBs of YouTube videos will be out of the question.

I remember, from my long-ago youth (before even TV), that one of the lest power-hungry methods of communication was short-wave (CW) radio. Usually used to transmit Morse code. Simple computers can translate Morse code into alphabetic characters. Why not just binary. Well, Morse code can be understood and translated by humans without computer-based decoders.

Perhaps community-based short-wave stations, powered by locally-generated electricity, would be a good idea for out resource-poor future?

Phil Espin said...

We just took on an additional area of allotment in the autumn and our project this week is to dig out a 6 feet high compost hill that occupies around 16 square yards in one corner. It has been there at least 10 years and we are recovering some beautiful soil by "riddling out" all the stuff you wouldn't want in a new raised bed.

What has amazed me is the volume of green plastic string and coated wire that has come out of the heap aswell as plastic bags, chicken wire etc. Its a metaphor for our throw away society that struck a chord when I read your piece. A lot of land in the cities will need similar attention for local food production so I strongly endorse your suggestion that soil recovery technologies should be at the top of the list for your competition entrants.

Our reclaimed land is destined for fruit bushes which may end up producing bioethanol which won't be wasted in fuel tanks!

A small practical biomass powered electicity generator for home use would also be a good thing to have.
Especially if waste vegetable oils and ethanol could be dripped into it.

thriftwizard said...

Totally off-the-wall suggestion here - maybe someone could breed a plant or lichen that will grow in hot, dry conditions, "eat" sunlight and excrete anything excess to its own needs as electricity, which we could somehow harvest? A bit like stromatolites gave off oxygen? That's probably laughable, but a fair number of things that we have actually done seemed laughable to the establishment when first suggested. It just takes something to spark an idea, however unlikely, and someone who can see how to turn that idea into reality. Then all we'd have to worry about would be the plants breeding too fast & taking over the world...

Mind you, here in the UK, we could probably produce power from turbines turned by falling rain, at the moment!

sometulip said...

JMG you're going very hard on us lately, what with turning down the thermostat and off the telly, now we've to find a way to sanitise nuclear waste and chemical spills. I better tell my son I can't help him with his homework that I've too much of my own!

You're right of course I read recently that the spike and decline of crime has been linked to lead poisoning from leaded petrol and that some of the worse crime black spots now are those with high lead levels in the soil resulting from the recently passed era of lead petrol consumption.

Thankfully as you suggested there is a low tech way to get around the lead poisoning problem. It's to plant Spinach! (And bury it somewhere deep afterwards I assume)

I'm a telecoms engineer so I'm off to the shed to figure out how to communicate over large distances from stuff that doesn't require an industrial society to make.

Flagg707 said...

"...if at all possible, some way of making spent fuel rods and other high-level waste physically stable, chemically inert, and biologically inaccessible. Oh, and it needs to be tested thoroughly; this is not a situation in which it’s helpful to rely on the alleged properties of vaporware..."

Well, such technologies already exist. However, it requires two things not present in these currently United States at the moment - reprocessing capability and a long-term storage site. Both of those are non-starters to factions that have significant capability of stopping any projects they don't like.

In order to properly segregate the waste stream, you need to break down the fuel. This requires some sort of reprocessing technology such as PUREX, some of the pyroprocessing techniques, or other technologies proven in the US and now abandoned by us, but used in other countries such as the UK, France, Japan, etc.

Once you have segregated out the materials into different tranches such as your actinides, strontium and cesium, etc. you can then use appropriate, proven technologies to sequester it.

You'd expect such a program to use vitrification or grouting for the long-lived but low-level stuff and then probably the Synroc technology out of Australia for the higher activity stuff. You want to segregate them as the higher activity stuff decays faster (duh, it is higher activity, but I had to say it) so you want to have a different type of storage setup for it than the longer-lived stuff that is not much more radioactive on contact than a bunch of bananas.

Alternatively, if you want to do your damnedest to keep some of the Industrial Civilization project going, you'd use that same reprocessing center described above to stretch out the resources for quite a long time by engaging in fuel recycling or you'd use proven technology that has been abandoned in the US such as the 100% mass burnup that was conceived and proven as part of the EBR-II fast reactor project at Idaho National Lab that ran successfully for many years. Other technologies that are not proven on a large scale but that are scaleable include sub-critical accelerator driven systems to bombard waste to generate power, though it is a wasteful way to go about it.

There are a whole host of mature technologies to address this issue. The biggest issue is the political culture in my opinion.

Don Plummer said...

Regarding your comment that few now remember the lump of coal in the stocking for bad little children feature of the Santa Claus narrative, a few weeks ago while we were holiday shopping, we passed the beer section in a supermarket. On a shelf in plain sight was a pint bottle marked, "Lump of Coal Ale." We didn't buy it, though I was tempted. I thought you might enjoy knowing that some do remember that feature.

Regarding the bioremediation flora, wouldn't they have to do more than concentrate toxins in their tissues to be truly effective? Otherwise, they will merely recycle the toxins when they die. Unless they would be safe to toss onto a compost pile, their concentrating of toxins wouldn't be of much long-term help, would they?

Gerry Veenstra said...

This contest has the potential to provide some thought-provoking perspectives and maybe some actual solutions. What a great idea - I can't wait to see the results.
In the meantime, the statement near the beginning of your post, "... we haven’t yet noticed that a belief in coincidence is the most popular superstition of the age of science" is intriguing. Could you elaborate on that? Perhaps as the subject of a future post? If coincidence isn't two or more things happening at the same time, with no connection between them, then what is it? I suspect your answer will be from a Druid perspective and fascinating...
JMG, many thanks for your blog. I have learned plenty from it over the years.

Kristiina said...

Krampus? Hadn't even known about this - and obviously Krampus is one variation of what in Finnish folk tradition is called Nuuttipukki (translation: Yule goat). Some photos from a folklore collection (showing a mask used when being nuuttipukki and a somewhat unclear photo of a nuuttipukki in action wearing traditional attire). Definitely not a Santa character. The santa from coca-cola adverts has definitely usurped the original. Although a lot of the old tradition still survives. Like the bundles of branches that may be given to naughty children instead of presents. Or that's what is told to kids. A nice representative of the repressed part of human psyche in the agrarian past: drunken womanizer, rowdy and loud, doesn't work for living, somewhat scary and hairy. But what I am starting to think: what is repressed today? What kind of shadows do we project? Any schoolkid can access all sorts of sexual perversions freely in this information heaven. Mind-altering drugs of different effect are available either from doctors or the unofficial market, so a Krampus character would nowadays pass as a citizen among others. All the forbidden things are laid out for all to see. So, what is it that we as culture want to turn our heads away from? The thing that comes to my mind is waste. Garbage, the physical stuff (including nuclear wate), the inner garbage, all the dirt we think we can hide inside forever like a landfill that gradually grows into infinity - without anyone noticing. As if there's some invisibility cloak that covers waste, enabling most people to tune out of the reality of garbage. Hm, I vaguely remember Peter Sloterdijk saying something like this: nuclear bomb is the buddha of our day. But that goes as well for nuclear waste, doesn't it? It is just sitting still, doing nothing, and exposing us in our stupidity - to those who have eyes to see.

Kristiina said...

Oh, an addentum: as I was looking at the Sloterdijk article in Wikipedia (I had read his Critique of Cynical Reason probably 25 years ago, but had not followed his later fates) this was there: "The taming of man has failed", Sloterdijk lamented. "Civilisation's potential for barbarism is growing; the everyday bestialisation of man is on the increase." Yup, Krampus is walking among us. That may be another issue: how to live with the reality of Krampus. The beastly in us.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Paul Stamets (Fungi Perfecti) is doing some work with mushrooms and bioremediation. Here's a short video (4 minutes) of mushrooms "cleaning up" diesel.

Captain D said...

JMG, excellent post and I'm glad to see you tackling this subject - which has gone underdiscussed for far too long amongst the technologists of the present age. While our current era of cheap concentrated energy may go away, the idea of "technology" itself - as represented by the tools and methodologies with which we subjectively improve or further understand our world - will not, though it will change significantly.

One large area in which I have some serious concern is medicine. Some of the world's highest non-military technology goes into the medial field and has produced some incredible results (fMRI, scanning/tunneling electron microscopy, etc...). These technologies would likely be limited to extremely few institutes as the ability to maintain and produce them degrades. And a large part of modern medicine's successes stem from our ready access to heavily oil dependent pharmacology lab product and the logistic train that provides medical supplies to areas where they are not locally manufactured. Of course, we'll have to radically re-think our medical process, but perhaps there are ways to maintain reasonable care (e.g. for the most common maladies), local production of the more nature-based medicines, and effective prevention regimens for epidemics by thoughtful application of principles. This is an area in which I can see a huge need for research starting immediately as well, with virtually zero discussion among medical professionals that I've seen.

Also, along with the Seebeck effect, Stirling engines and the like are relatively simple to construct and also take advantage of thermal differences. Solar powered Stirling engines are growing in popularity as are those powered by other normal heating sources (wood, geothermal, etc). These are excellent and proven ways to generate reliable and often more-efficient-than-PV power from the sun which require not much more than slightly-enhanced-medieval manufacturing to produce. They are also far less likely to be damaged than PV and being convertible to other heat sources, are adaptable to varied climates and conditions seasonally.

Thanks again for a great, thoughtful, and thought-provoking post.

KCRichards said...

For many years "alternate" energy sources have been applied and used. For years an old Electrical Engineer friend and coworker of mine has been using Geothermal designs for years and runs his farm completely on it. Its not a new technology and more "rural" people use it than anyone thinks. It simply uses the temperature differences the lower you go into the ground. He has a couple of patents on the generator and battery system, but the amount of KW he gets is amazing.

I didn't believe him when I first met him, as the math didn't add up, but he proved me wrong. He laughed at me and said these answers have been around for ever, but there is no profit it in.

g-minor said...

JMG: "My hope is that panic following a major accident will provide the incentive to do something while we still have the capacity."

Didn't we have that major accident in March 2011 at Fukushima? And isn't nothing being done about the precarious fuel pool at reactor 4 which apparently has the potential to make Japan uninhabitable for a very long time? TEPCO and the Japanese government (not to mention our own government) have responded to the crisis with the usual lies and coverups.

Arnie Gunderson and Helen Caldicott and a few others keep trying to get people to focus but, alas, with little success.

Steve Morgan said...

A capital idea!

One thing that came to mind reading the first section was the organization Engineers Without Borders. It's certainly not an ecotechnic organization and has its own issues, but it's one of the few venues I've encountered that gives USAn engineers real-world problems with severe design constraints (i.e. must be built in a non-industrial country with readily available materials, must be easily repaired and replicated by local people trained by you, etc.). The work sounds much more applicable to Scarcity Industrialism or Salvage societies, but it's certainly a step in the direction.

Any rule regarding the number of submissions?

Max Paris said...


This is what we are doing in Canada:

They are proposing similar solutions in France, the UK and the US.

Bury it deep. That seems to be the solution most nuclear scientists agree on.


Tyler August said...

The seebeck effect is, unfortunately, kind of awful in efficiency. There are ways around that awfulness, but you need to nanostructure the material to do it-- in short, the electrons need to be able to flow freely, as in a metal, but heat flow needs to be frustrated as in a glass. Figuring out what said structures would look like is not a trivial task, but one being embarked upon with the (insane) computational resources now available.
The problem is then synthesizing a real material with said structures. That is very difficult-- especially if you add the constraint that you want an alchemist to be able to perform the synthesis.
None of this is to say it's not doable-- but I wasn't able to get any funding or university support for it (too ambitious, I was told, and of course it does not fit in with the high-tech paradigm and our myth of progress; if it's better it HAS to need clean room techniques!) and have pretty much abandoned my hope of getting a PhD by consequence.

Fact of the matter is, even the ideal thermoelectric material faces the same thermodynamic constraints as the ideal mechanical heat engine; both are subject to the Carnot efficiency.Given that we can get fairly close to Carnot with a well-designed heat engine but nowhere near with the best thermoelectrics (and mechanical-to-electrical is never below 80% unless you're doing something awful) you're actually better off with the clanky steampunk version. For that matter, NASA's free-piston sterling project is still getting better efficiencies than existing or near-term thermoelectrics, and it doesn't clank-- the piston is the only moving part!

Ideally, we'd figure out a good thermoelectric nano-structure you could generate with something like a hydrothermal mineral synthesis out of readily available elements, but... I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you.

Would a review on this matter, perhaps identifying promising research avenues from the perspective of an alchemist's lab vs. a million dollar clean room be of interest for this anthology?

Max said...

Hello JMG,

I am a longtime reader. Coming from a physical science background, (physics B.S., currently Master's candidate in atmospheric science) I have to admit I'm a bit skeptical of your list of proposed technologies. Out of your four main wishes, the first two fall into what I'd like to call "cleaning up our mess" technologies. While that might make Gaia happy to see waste products no longer wasted, I think this is a bit of a broken philosophy.

While a bit more nebulous than hard sciences, I'd venture to argue that the psychology behind these first two technologies is to pray for, as you call it, vaporware, to deal with whatever externalities our current industralized house of cards produces. Monsanto likely has a division dedicated to cleaning up "poisioned" soils, until they can outsource more patented seeds and fertilizer to farmers/sharecroppers ready to poison soils all over again. This "mess cleaning" technology would allow our society to perpetuate the same damn mess of contamination and poisoning without actually changing our ways to adapt to any possibility of a deindustrialized future.

The fourth point sounds like Edison's revenge, and I agree completely. Small-scale energy production, moving towards Edison's idea of a generator on every block, is probably something that ought to happen sooner, rather than later.

I think the most important science related issue that ought to be dealt with is your third point. We do not live in a society that admires science beyond money making opportunities or exciting gadgets. Instead, I hear that the work I do has a “liberal bias” because it doesn't agree with the establishment's conclusions that we don't have to worry about the environment or what have you. We scientists need to get out there and show the messy, wonderful, and very necessary process that research goes through, to see that we scientists aren't any different from people in other fields, to gain an appreciation for what exactly is in the science we put in our grand applications.

Thanks for your weekly thought provoking posts JMG! I always look forward to reading them.


Steven said...


Well thought through as usual. I do worry that you've missed one further problem, which has to do with a shortage of trained and experienced personnel. In my limited experience, the US has a relative lack of skilled machinists, and their skills are learned and passed on on the job rather than codified in books. As long as we hang on to some textbooks, we can train new engineers; but if in a time of disruption we lose senior machinists, we'll lose a lot of accumulated practical knowledge.

It's been a while since I was a practicing engineer, so I can't contribute any designs or essays at this point, However, this is an area I'd love to go into professionally, so if there are any other readers are interested and located in Western MA or Washington, DC, please let me know.

GHung said...

I'm left wondering if this is a challenge to reinvent the wheel, or build a more sustainable mouse trap. While I've adopted some high-tech solutions such as PV, my passion, and first choice, is to reclaim as much simple, sustainable technology as I can.

I'm sitting here looking at two thermostats. One is a fully-programmable electronic wonder, the other is a simple little box with a bi-metal strip and set of contacts. They both do essentially the same thing, excepting that the electronic wonder doesn't require one to remember to adjust it, whenever one needs to adjust a thermostat. What is the cost of this one 'advantage'? A much more resource intensive manufacturing process, battery replacement every 6-12 months, far more to go wrong, and 5 times the initial cost. I'll be surprised if it lasts as long as the simple bi-metal has been functioning perfectly; 40+ years.

While the daily routine of adjusting the thermostat or opening the blinds to let the sun in has become a meaningful part of my cycle, one wonders how long it will take for our culture to realize this small thing; the cost of convenience and complexity is that it robs us of some things. How to convince others that the simple solution is usually the better choice? I expect that circumstances will remind us that this may be so.

I encourage those who accept this challenge to review past posts (and other sources) pertaining to appropriate technology. Keep in mind that any solutions designed to allow a population of 7 billion humans to persist in reasonable comfort going forward are really Faustian in nature. Look for closed-cycle solutions that can be an end in themselves, not begging for improvements that beget poor returns, or requiring ongoing inputs other than a little human intervention.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, I'd love to see somebody actually do controlled experiments with biochar. So far the whole subject has been long on handwaving and grandiose claims, and very short on the sort of simple tests anybody with a garden can do.

Thijs, yes, I'd heard of Zwarte Piet -- interesting that most European countries still give St. Nicholas a less than friendly sidekick.

Kevin, I'd be delighted to see a paper on good ways to make parabolic mirrors in a deindustrial setting. Those are useful for a whole range of reasons -- medieval alchemists used to use cylindrical mirrors to provide steady, even solar heat for some of their potions.

Alison, good. You're paying attention! Of course it's simply a matter of moving toxins from one place to another -- matter can be neither created nor destroyed, and heavy metals in particular are very hard to turn into inert forms -- so the point is to get them out of places where they enter the food chain, and either stash them in a secure location or (if you can do something with the metals that's useful -- for example, lead makes good batteries) extract the metal in usable form.

Grebulocities, I'm less than thrilled by genetic engineering; I don't think we know enough about whole systems to risk putting new transgenic organisms into the biosphere. Still, if you want to make a case for bioengineered organisms as a deindustrial technology worth pursuing, I'm not going to refuse to consider the paper.

Sea Spray, are you going to contribute a paper one one of these?

Kieran, true enough. Plans for a geiger counter that could be built in a basement workshop, for instance, would be well worth having.

Sven, make a case for social tech as a relevant technology in the deindustrial era, and then present your planned technology, and it'll be considered.

Entropian, I did specify an area of several hundred square miles that had to be abandoned for a millennium or two. When that happens -- and statistically speaking, I think it's when, not if -- I suspect you'll see a different reaction.

By the way, "entropian"? If that's the opposite of an extropian, I'm glad to hear of it.

John Michael Greer said...

BoysMom, good. Or a substitute for antibiotics that's less vulnerable to bacterial evolution -- Stephen Harrod Buhner's book Herbal Antibiotics has some good info along these lines.

Leo, keep thinking -- you may come up with something yet!

Johan, excellent! Keep us posted on the project; books like the one you've described are badly needed.

Mr Booch, one cubic meter per year from every nuclear power plant on earth adds up to a lot of high level waste in a hurry. Yes, I'm familiar with the logic used to justify further nuclear waste production; I consider it morally bankrupt, for reasons I've already discussed -- and blaming politics doesn't change the fact that we've got tons of the stuff piling up, and the supporters of nuclear energy are perfectly willing to let it pile up without making any sustained effort to deal with it.

Jeffrey, are you going to submit a paper on the subject?

Rhisiart, hmm. I'd like to see more than hunches...

Raven, Kervran gets brought up very often in some circles. I've yet to meet anyone who claims to have duplicated his results. The scientific method's ability to sort out replicable facts from handwaving is worth keeping -- most of the alchemists I know (and yes, I know a fair number of them) are as insistent on relying on experimental results as any scientist.

John, it's interesting to note that even when the price of nuclear fuel goes through the roof, reprocessing never gets more than enthusiastic words. I tend in situations like that to wonder if the technology is far less economical than it's cracked up to be. As for bioaccumulation, no argument there.

Dave, that's fascinating. The guy's quite right, too -- once you drop the impossible requirement for a replacement for fossil fuels, and concentrate on what makes sense in a less energy-extravagant environment, all kinds of possibilities open up.

Tubaplayer, I hadn't heard about the cabbage leaves and ashes -- isn't that basically a description of English cuisine? ;-)

GHung said...

@Kevin: "I do wonder what materials and techniques one would use to make a high-reflectancy mirror, capable of being compoundly curved, in a postindustrial situation."

An array of smaller flat mirrors can work almost as well. I'm in the early stages of attaching 12"x12" glass mirrors to an old satellite dish, all focused on a coil of copper tubing. The dish "knuckle" (mount) is already designed to articulate for azimuth and elevation.

The problem going forward will be how to accurately track the sun. My current plan is to control it electronically using actuators, but in the future, hand-cranked adjusters are certainly an option.

I have a Zomeworks solar tracker that uses two tanks of fluid connected by a tube. When the mount is misaligned with the sun, one tank heats up relative to the other, pushing fluid (weight) to the other tank until the mount realigns with the sun. While it works remarkably well, is simple and reliable, it has its limitations and is only single axis (east to west). That said, I love this thing; it just works, like a sunflower. I adjust the elevation seasonally and give the bearings a shot of grease annually.

wiseman said...

A world without solar panels ? What kind of world you think we are going back to...1920's, 30's or 40's. If we can't make solar panels and by the same logic LED's, transistors and IC's, what are we going to do with all that electricity ?

I am guessing that a stirling ought to be more than enough to light up a bulb and/or run a simple motor. Hydro and wind will still be around I guess or are taking that out of the equation as well.

Myriad said...

I'm still working on the "plywood computer" concept from about a year ago, and I've made substantial progress. (You may or may not recall that I made a claim in an ADR comment thread to the effect that the concept of binary digital computation is so fundamental that a computer, albeit an extremely slow one, could be made of wood; and you suggested going ahead and doing it). I doubt that such a thing will ever be useful, or needed, but it has potential as an educational toy as well as, in extreme future scenarios, a possible means of preserving certain knowledge. Future progress permitting, the November deadline might be very well timed for revealing some details.

On the far simpler and more practical side, I first wrote about personal face illuminators (on a different forum) two years ago. In theory, those could replace about 50 terawatt-hours per year of fixed outdoor lighting in the U.S., right away. Scattered towns across the U.S. have been turning off street lights for budget reasons since about 2010, so the time for rethinking what all that blazing light is really good for is overdue. When you look deeply into it, most such lighting is motivated, at the core, by the desire to be able to see other people's faces at night. To make face illuminators succeed in the short term, the required social engineering (thaumaturgy, in your parlance) would far exceed the electrical, but in the longer term they might become inevitable, as a more compelling aid to social interaction in dim lighting than past methods such as powdered white wigs and big white ruffled collars.

There are a few other problems and ideas I've been chewing on... is this contest one entry per person?

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Yes, how INDEED can we get electricity from sunshine without deploying exotic materials such as high-purity silicon? One implementation of possible commercial interest (I think involving Sterling engines with a rather low temp diff between hot side and cool side, and therefore intoducing some unavoidable inefficiencies) is illustrated at


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
www dot metascientia dot com

Twilight said...

Well, I'm one who believes the nuclear catastrophe you've described has already happened at Fukushima. It's just that, incredibly, Japan has chosen not to abandon that future dead zone and instead is trying to pretend it didn't happen, while the horrifying consequences of that are only beginning to manifest. They simply lack the resources to do what is needed, and in hindsight that outcome is not a surprise. I would very much like to be wrong.

As an engineer who is already on board with your views I'll give the project some thought. I'm not sure that I can invest the time required in between all the other demands on my time that living with one foot in the BAU past and reaching toward a new reality create.

Still there's been a roll of Konstantan wire on my desk here at work for some months now. I started the design of of a TEG several times now, but I'm lacking a couple of key inputs. One of which is the physical aspect of what I wish to use as a heat source and sink, as the design must be based on that geometry and temperature difference. One must also balance two opposing factors, namely reducing the internal electrical impedance of the junctions vs. maintaining sufficient thermal impedance so as not to reduce the temperature difference between the source and sink. This appears to be the fundamental compromise of a TEG. And you sure do need a bunch of junctions! It is a technology with a lot of inherent compromises and inefficiencies, but with the possibility of great resiliency. We will have to learn to live with compromises after all.

Nonetheless the project calls to me, as I design pulse width modulated switching power supplies. I am thinking less of a basement, craft type design at this point, and more of something that would make limited use of circuit boards and presently available electronic components, as it would reduce the time I must devote by allowing me to use design tools presently available. However, this means it require more financial investment to make.

Carlo said...

Many Hands – Can we raise armies to cover the earth repairing, cleaning, planting as they move through the countryside, using anything that works to leave behind food forests and water works, legends of heroes and new strands of possibilities that will serve generations beyond theirs? I think we will.

Redtail said...

I often walk about delivering a speech to an imagined crowd. Then I write it down. Pen on paper in a kind of short-hand, then the spruced up version. What would I say to the movers and shakers of our industrial world? Yep, here comes a story.
The Hourglass
The sand falls. It represents the Earth's life expectancy. It falls through the bottleneck of the hourglass.
You and I had hopes of prolonging our time here ... slowing the sand.
We've developed survival multipliers for most of our upright existance. Constant observation, creativity, and sharing of the work.
But, we've stared into the fire of progress too long and in an evermore limiting way. It has caused a form of night blindness to the key ingredients that encourage life and the pursuit of happiness.
It is NOT the sand that needed our attention, it is the hourglass. What is it made of ... how does it work. We cannot be sure of precisely how much sand there was, or is, or how much remains. I do think it is not difficult to know the structure and function of the hourglass. Picture it this way.
The glass is a rigid structure that on a microscopic level is pitted. One celled organisms inhabited this rugged landscape and formed the living layer that more complex life forms could cling to. Over time, the layers and their complexity grew, shrinking the diameter of hourglass neck. This gave life more time to be. As far as I can tell, only in our hopeful imagination can the neck of the hourglass ever fully close.
What happens when events on Earth, strip away living layers of constriction, in the neck of the hourglass?
WE, are a living, observable answer to that question. Two reasons. One is our tenacious human nature. The second is that self induced night blindness out of control. We must honestly recognize our nature to constructively work with it. The blindness is a veil we can choose to lift. Or not.
Here is the kicker. Even as most of us choose not see clearly, the veil is being lifted for us by our own actions and in-actions. The veil less view is getting tougher to face each and every day, making it less likely that you, the individual, will lift it with your own hands.
What we are doing now is "buying time" from our children ( that would be all newborns of all species). We are also losing time spent on the question" Are we as a species capable of recognizing, developing and maintaining a lively hood for our planet?"
Assume we are. Tell this story. Make time as seen through the hourglass. Warren

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Perhaps some of the comp-sci crowd could work out a path of graceful degradation, to ensure that a world faced with loss of its computer industry loses those capabilities as slowly and smoothly as possible?

We could do with a comp-sci equivalent of the Svalbard seed vault, in which various things get archived, very notably printed comp-sci books.

One humble book which I would like to see archived in the cyberSvalbard is Charles Petzold's 1999 paperback _Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software_ (cf This is perhaps my very favourite computer book, since it starts from basic logic gates and builds its way up to something like the 8086 processor. With this book alone, a dogged and ingenious team could build, from mere discrete transistors (or perhaps even mere electromechanical relays - given LOTS of money!) something a bit like the circa-1975 Altair 8800.

Lest people laugh at the thought of an Altair-flavoured machine that probably has to be programmed in machine code (not even in assembler), I would insist that the Altair 8800 is probably not radically unlike the Cambridge University EDSAC I of 1949, and that the EDSCAC I was quickly harnessed at Cambridge for substantive scientific computation.

Is anyone from the wonderful social-contract-enforcing, commerce-forswearing Debian GNU/Linux project reading this blog, and therefore pondering the notion of a cyberSvalbard?


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
__currently in the throes of
installing Debian 6.0.6 "Stable" on an Intel Core 2 Duo mobo, currently running 2GB of DDR3, rather embarrassingly drawing a nasty 110 watts or so when idling

www dot metascientia dot com

Harry J. Lerwill said...

I recently came across this in an article in the UK Telegraph. I'm not convinced that that Thorium will work as a net energy provider, considering the cost of building the facilities in an age of decline.

Still, this paragraph got my attention:

"Cambridge scientists published a tantalising study in the Annals of Nuclear Energy in February showing that it is possible to "achieve near complete transuranic waste incineration" by throwing the old residue into the reactor with thorium."

It's still as much vaporware as a working Thorium reactor at this stage. But even if there is not a practical use of thorium as a fuel, if it can be used to dispose of waste, it might be worth expending the resources if it uses LESS resources than trying to dispose of it other ways.

Robo said...

There have been earlier discussions of thermoelectrics here. Whether heated by combustion or solar concentrators, the adaptability, simplicity and resiliency of this technology is attractive as long as electrical demands are modest.

The very low efficiency seems to have discouraged much commercial development beyond a few novelty items like woodstove fans. Nevertheless, there's at least one small scale commercial developer:

Of course, the Soviets manufactured a small kerosene thermogenerator 60 years ago, and before them, many others. It's all been done before:

Solar or fuel heated Stirling engines are more efficient, but require precision machining and metallurgy that will be scarce in the post-industrial future.

Even in the absence of solid-state electronics, exotic industrial processes and high-tech materials, a clever mechanic could always assemble a workable thermoelectric generator from any number of dissimilar metals. The output might be meager, but it would have to work.

The question remains as to what kind of devices would be available to run on that precious electricity if our technological gestalt ever devolved to the point that thermoelectrics and crude mechanical generators were all we had. It's unlikely that the internet, iPhones or eBooks would have any relevancy by then.

By that point, even electric lighting or power tools might be seen as a waste of time and energy. Why burn a fire to heat a generator to run an electric lamp when the fire could do an effective job of lighting all by itself? Why run a power saw to cut firewood to make the fire to heat a generator to run another power saw to build a structure, when hand-powered saws or adzes could do the job without all the extra steps?

Absent the national electric grid and petro-powered generators, many of our assumed needs and customary uses for electricity would have to be re-evaluated.

Dan L. said...

I wanted to say basically what Tyler August said -- it seems to me that low-tech thermoelectric couplers are woefully inefficient (there's a reason industrial thermal solar couple solar to mechanical to electrical) and that even high-tech thermoelectric materials aren't particular efficient. I'm also concerned whether any low-tech thermoelectric materials would even operate at the sorts of temperatures achievable with parabolic mirrors manufactured in non-industrial settings.

But in the interest of being constructive, I think solar updraft towers are a nice alternative. Although they're also pretty inefficient, a simple one wouldn't seem to require any advanced manufacturing techniques except perhaps for the turbines.

John Maiorana said...

A real problem with modern society is the belief that the world is essentially mechanical in nature - in other words, dead. So it is not surprising that such a society would wind up killing everything. Science and technology will not solve our problems; they have caused and or exacerbated them, and will continue to do so. A fundamental shift in attitude is necessary, one which unfortunately will not leave man (or his 'evolutionary' descendants) as master of the universe. We may begin by confirming life as the fundamental stuff of the universe, and not dead, inanimate matter. To do so, we will have to abandon the notion that the world conforms to a finitely prescribed theory.

SLClaire said...

You've heard of earworms perhaps? That's when a song, or more usually a portion of a song, plays themselves as if on an endless loop through your brain. I can have those things in my brain intermittently for days, especially when I am intensively practicing a song. Now you and your Krampus have given me a brainworm. I'm a trained scientist, PhD in chemistry plus eight years of work in industry, but I left paid work 20 years ago. Still, while I could ignore the fiction contest (never been any good at that), I know I'm not going to be able to ignore this one. It'll be stuck in my head as a brainworm for months. Thanks a lot. ;) But I suppose entering the contest could be seen as repayment for the (fortunately rather small in amount and not particularly toxic) waste from my time in industry that, quite literally, has my name on it, as we were required to put our name on the paperwork of anything we sent to the hazardous waste facility.

Glenn said...

Solar Thermal Steam dates back to the French in North Africa in the 1880's using reciprocal engines. It could compete with imported coal from England, but not with locally pumped oil, and so died. Still, it's more efficient than thermal-electric and can be produced at a very low level of technology and machining. The collectors were parabolic section troughs.

The disadvantage compared to PV is climatic. PV will work, at reduced efficiency, under an overcast. Solar thermal won't. Still, there are large areas of the world that would make good sites. This brings up the question of how to transport materials there if one wishes to use the electricity or kinetic energy (skip the middleman) produced for industrial purposes.

Lo-tech has a couple of excellent articles relevant to this. One was on the industrial use of wind mills as a non-electric source of rotary motion, another was the article on the medieval Dutch use of Peat as an industrial fossil fuel and a recent article on the use of low level heat in industrial processes.

I'm not suggesting a reversion to burning peat, but some of the processes could be done with solar heat.

I find PV useful at least as a legacy technology. I'm used to the off the grid approach used in the '70's. The problems were battery life and voltage loss in long runs with 12 and 24 volt DC systems. Roof top applications with fat wire and short runs helps. So does storing your energy in the form of pumped well water in a large header tank, frozen food and water in a chest freezer, and a very _small_ battery bank for night lighting and the stereo. If you use electric appliances, use DC devices by day.


Russ said...

John - I've read most of your books and your posts for the past year. I can't begin to understand all of this hi-sci stuff. I majored in history in college, so my fact checking of your posts has been in that area. I won't enter your contest but I'll be glad to read the entries to somehow improve my ignorance. My wife and I are in our 80's and we're as prepared as we can possible be for the "Long Descent". We have 11kw solar on the roof, 80sq. feet of hot water solar and ham radio in the basement (ham shack) with a backyard full of antennae. We also have lots of trees we planted 35 years ago and a fireplace. No cows in that backyard. I look forward to your posts every week and decided to congratulate you. Happy solsztice! Russ Day

Ruben said...

An excellent critique of the Open Source Ecology project can be found here. The same author (who has built a bicycle powered apple crusher and cider press capable of producing nearly a hundred gallons per hour) has another great post on rapid prototyping, which has a lot of relevance to this contest.

I think both of these posts contain a lot of reality that could be useful in writing and judging submissions.

Jason Heppenstall said...

I will give the biochar a go, just as soon as I find my feet. the results will be on the Green Wizards forum.

As for the question you asked me the other week about learning Cornish - which I so rudely didn't answer (well, I was on the move) - the answer is, yes, of course. It's near the top of my list.

@Harry - I wouldn't take anything you read in the Telegraph seriously. As for AEP he seems to exist just to act as partner in crime to pump and dump operations. He has some useful opinions on money supply, but he has a clear hatred for anything that might benefit planet earth - if he thinks nuclear plants are so safe why doesn't he go and live next to one? I'm sure he'd find a clever excuse not to.

Cathal said...

Have been reading for over a year now, and I'm enjoyimg The Archdruid Report thoroughly.

I'm delighted by your challenge, as it's right up my alley; I already like to write articles in this vein for my favourite technology, biotech:

I'd be delighted to contribute more in that vein if desired; my work is always licensed CC-BY-SA, but I can waive the sharealike provision if needed.

Part of the reason I put faith in biotech is because of White's Law (thank you for giving me a name for that principal); it brings very complex and powerful technologies closer to the 'sun and the soil'; the roots of our energy ecology. It becomes far easier to imagine a technologically empowered society in a post-collapse world when their 'power plant' is literally a forest of engineered trees into which simple electrodes have been driven (trees naturally generate a tiny potential difference from ground, something that it might be possible to enhance).

I should add that I see significant potential for biotech to become sustainably local, with most or allnecessary reagents/enzymes being biomanufactured from agricultural waste streams. Very short supply chains!

So, challenge accepted; aside from the foregoing link for community-scale pharma, I'll pick something exciting and difficult to manage post-collapse, and look into the literature for a sustainable, community scale biotech solution!

OrwellianUK said...


I think it's fair to say that the "inevitable nuclear waste accident" you mention has already occurred - the shenanigans of TEPCO and the Japanese government notwithstanding. I seem to recall a good deal of temporarily stored used uranium rods were exposed along with the cores of at least one reactor.

How much is a dead zone seems to be the secret knowledge of the Japanese authorities at this stage.

Angus Winfield said...

I'm not sure whether I am going to have time to enter your competition; my time is very much taken up with my own blog ( If you. or anyone else cares to trawl through the sequence of posts they will see that I am optimistic that the Earth-brain internet linking a million minds will come up with solutions....not world shattering, but simple solutions that will survive and grow.....and stand the chance of surviving the eventual wind -down of all those factories making stuff we have no need for. I agree that we need new specific technologies to deal with nuclear waste and toxicity in the soil, but more than that, we need technologies that will buy us time to deal with these things.

Matthias Marten said...

I don't think that I'll have the time to write something for this contest, but I can propose a few ideas.

- Nuclear waste transmutation
This avenue of research generally requires a strong neutron flux to bombard the fission by-products with. The classic methods to obtain such flux is either an optimized research nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator targeting a lead block.

An alternative could be a device called a Fusor, shorthand for an Inertial-Electrostatic Confinement (IEC) thermonuclear fusion reactor. It sounds overly complex and quite dangerous, but it's in fact quite simple to build : an amateur can manufacture one for about 2000$ of materials and obtain a flux of 10^9 neutrons/s.

The efficiency of these basic models is pitiful (Eout/Ein=10^-6) but the energy released by the nuclear transmutation should offset these figures. Other configurations like the PolyWell could offer much better efficiencies or even a break-even.

- Low-tech photovoltaics
Someone named Pr. Gerald Pollack claimed to have discovered a "liquid crystal" effect in water exposed to IR radiation. This structuring of the water molecules leads to a charge separation that can be transformed into an electrical current.

He filled a patent of a PV cell based on this principle that only uses water and transparent hydrophilic materials.
The corresponding document reads like a long science paper and contains all the information needed to understand/build the concept. The claimed efficiency is only 1/5 of conventional PV cells, by this technology is in its infancy and progress is still possible.

- Low-tech wind power
Another inventor has proposed an electrostatic windmill that collects charged particles from the atmosphere via airfoil-shaped wind-vanes. The figures given in the patent below are a little dubious, but the invention is now in the public domain and the system is very simple to build, so free experimentation is possible.

flute said...

As Kristiina commented, Krampus has "relatives" in the Nordic countries, e.g. the Finnish Nuuttipukki. In Sweden the Yule Goat (more correctly Yule Buck/Billygoat, in Swedish "Julbock") was quite active before we took in father Christmas. In some areas the tradition of "Julbock" survived well into the 20th century. Incidentally, the Swedish version of St Nicolas / Father Christmas has adopted a number of traits from the old Tomte, a kind of farmyard leprechaun, and also traits from the "Julbock".
So when I first read about Krampus in your previous post, I was intrigued that what I thought was a Nordic tradition with pagan roots also existed in similar forms in Central Europe.
For some reason I've never come across Krampus before, even though I've read quite a lot about various pagan stuff.

Betsys_Backyard said...

healthcare is always on my mind. Especially affordable, highly successful, scientific repeatable, natural ways to treat infections and seizures. Two chronic issues in my immediate family.
I am wishing the US would develop more interest in "Phage therapy". Developed in the 1920s and still used in the Soviet state of Georgia.. This is a pre-antibiotic way of treating infections with select microbes that target the species of pathogen..
I heard of some current studies showing impressive results against particular strains of pathogens ( ?staphloccus?) on diabetic chronic foot ulcers..
These are natural occurring pathogens that can effectively treat some infections, particularly on skin, open wounds and GI tract with far, fewer side effects or chance of resistance developing than conventional antibiotics. Antibiotics stopped the general industrial world interest in mass production, but for the soviet exception.

I suspect anything capable of production in the 1920s has a greater chance of de-centralized production in a lower energy future than say, many conventional antibiotics.

Jon said...

Mr. Greer,

Regarding spent nuclear fuel and other forms of pollution:

Consider that what makes something a pollutant is its concentration in a specific area. Grind something up into small enough pieces and disperse it wide enough and it is no longer harmful and therefore no longer a pollutant. Granted that converting fossil fuels into atmospheric CO2 is an exception to that rule.

All of this stuff comes from Mother Earth. She will welcome it back.

Bill Blondeau said...

In case any of the engineers and scientists out there are still puzzling over what to tackle, I have a modest proposal.

One of the worst things about the Long Descent will be the problem of books. I confess to a lifelong attachment to the things, and I fear for their survival.

Paper is inherently fragile; even acid-free paper deteriorates pretty quickly ("quickly" in historical time) through normal handling. And that's not even getting into the question of bindings. We are awash in printed material - 99% of which will not be physically extant a century hence.

Yes, books can last a very long time if kept in a stable environment - the more isolated and untouched the better. The problem, of course, is that books are meant to be handled by readers. They are meant to be read and reread (and creased and dogeared and used as coasters and laid down in spine-breaking poses while the reader attends to something. The destiny of books is not always pretty.) If there are not a lot of copies available, the book is no longer a book but merely a treasured artifact. Only when there are many copies can a book survive as a living entity. A book must be easily readable, and easily reached, by any bookworm (human not entomological) who wants to reach and read.

The default practice, successfully demonstrated in medieval times, of making hand copies is not an answer. It's the preservation of artifacts, not the continuation of books.

I am not an engineer, nor a materials scientist. But maybe there is someone out there who can figure out some clever way of making rugged, usable paper and binding materials that stand up to heavy handling, and are cheap and easy to reproduce in an energy-diffuse world.

What would an ecotechnic bookbinding technology look like - Tyvek-like paper made of hemp plants? How do you sustainably and cheaply produce inks that never fade or smudge? Bindings that withstand casual abuse for centuries?

Our industrial society, for all of its flaws, has produced a huge amount of worthwhile written material. Will our bookworm descendants have good opportunities to read any of those books?

DeAnander said...

Somewhat on-topic, I am so profoundly disappointed by this article from the Globe and Mail. It depresses me on many fronts, not least due to a sneaking suspicion that it's a plant of some kind (though it could just as well be perfectly genuine, the message of "just shut up and let the experts deal with it" is so soothing and conducive to BAU).

In a nutshell, my readerly irritation arises from two points: 1) the author thinks that the things she has done are so very heroic, so very extreme (yeah, living like pretty much everyone lived just 2 generations ago, quel horreur!), and 2) she glibly disqualifies all social critics (environmentalists etc) from any role in bettering our collective circumstances, and tells us to wait for "the grownups" (my paraphrase) to Do Something About It. What a dogma of despair and inaction, not to mention blind trust in technocracy.

The self-pitying spinelessness of the G&M article (sorry, I really am irritated) struck me with particular force by contrast with JMG's general stance, which could be summed up as "quit whining and do something helpful, do *anything* helpful, but do it now." I find the G&M author's despondency almost childish. "Hey, I tried for 20 whole years to alter the 3000-plus year arc of civilisation and it didn't work, so the heck with it, I now get to stop trying." Criminy, if the suffragists (both for female and nonwhite voting rights) had been so easily discouraged, the franchise would still be limited to whitefellahin with title deeds in their pockets :-)

Anyone else find this article annoying, or am I just more curmudgeonly than average today?

GreenEngineer said...


Semiconductor fabrication is not my area of expertise, so take this with the appropriate amount of salt. That said, have you considered the possibility that PV manufacture might not be the exclusive domain of a high tech, high energy intensity civilization? After all, the first PV cell was made in 1880-something. (Granted they had more fossil energy in those days, but they were not very good at harnessing it, so their effective available energy intensity might be similar to a future scenario.) And it is possible to manufacture LEDs (essentially the same technology) in a garage workshop, which I have done.

The efficiency of cells made in a low-tech environment would no doubt be poor by modern standards, since the purity of the material and the quality of the cleanroom would both be sub-standard. But it is possible to make PV cells under those conditions, and a 3-5% efficiency cell is pretty interesting when you have no other easy sources of electricity.

Also, as noted, the same technology could be used to manufacture LEDs, which are one of your better options for lighting with limited energy. So there would be a strong incentive to try to retain this technology at some level.

I suspect the answer is that we don't really know what is possible in terms of low-tech vacuum process technology. There is very little incentive currently to do that kind of research, because a low-efficiency PV cell is worthless in the context of the modern economy. But it would be a godsend in an energy descent scenario, provided that we do the necessary research while we still have the energy surplus to support that work.

DickLawrence said...

@"unknown" - I was talking with my daughter's friend, who is a rare guy - under 30 and an amateur radio operator. I asked him about internet protocols over amateur radio and he assured me that they've been playing around with it for decades, although he didn't know a lot about it. The features that make internet connectivity so robust (in spite of its complexity) help out here. A little internet search for TCP/IP and "amateur [or ham] radio" brings up a lot of information. A very old and "obsolete" PC will run these protocols, hooked up to a radio transmitter.

Compared to sending tons of physical paper across the continent, a network of locally-powered community radio links running internet protocols is a low-energy way of communicating (I'm not talking massive Google server farms here, just text messages primarily and the occasional highly-compressed image or document scan) - low storage and low bandwidth. I know what you're thinking - at some point the world won't be making PCs any more - but closets and attics across the industrialized world are home to millions of abandoned old computers; actually the guts of a smart phone could probably be commandeered and hacked to run TCP/IP by some determined engineers. The knowledge of how to do it will spread fast, once there's a need.

The radio transmitter/receiver? Not as many of them around but there are people who make their own amplifier vacuum tubes (look it up) - the only part they don't make is the heater filament - which I'm guessing you could salvage from an incandescent light bulb (yes I know those are going away too, but there will be millions of old bulbs still screwed into basement / attic sockets). Think salvage. Scavenger hunt.

I can see the local ham radio guy charging some $ ( or a bunch of carrots) to send a text email to your mother on the other side of the continent. I think this will outlive the USPS.

Dick Lawrence

dowsergirl said...

Mycelium Running is a terrific book. I hope that Paul Stamets is not the only one working with fungi and plants. My concerns are with big pharma and their stranglehold on the nation. There has to be an easier way to take care of people. There are books and films about indigenous peoples and their abilities to handle complex health issues. I attended a women's herbal conference where one of the presenters from Central America was appauled at the incidence of breast cancer in Western society. In her country it's relatively unheard of, because the grandmothers teach a system of massage that keeps the lymphs flowing.I just found out tonight that split peas can neutralize sulfites in those who are sensitive. There HAS to be a simpler way that we are overlooking in our need to solve with a pill....

John Michael Greer said...

Michelle, excellent. That's certainly a valid technology!

SMJ, I have very mixed feelings about OSE. They've got some good ideas, but yes, they seem to be fixated on preserving the kind of lifestyle we have now, which means that much of their tech may not be relevant to the kind of lifestyle our grandchildren are going to have; also, I'm not at all sure they're thinking through the implications of competition with less tech-heavy ways of doing things.

Dio, I've read it; one of the reasons I brought the subject up is that I'd like to see many more researchers working on the same sort of things.

Unknown, good. The ham radio community is already there -- they've got some very good low-tech ways of maintaining long distance communications, and I'm hoping that somebody submits a paper on that, or some aspect of that.

Phil, sounds like a good topic for a paper...

Thriftwizard, good -- now look into what would be required to make that idea into a reality.

Sometulip, good. As for long distance communication, talk to your local ham radio people; it's entirely possible to make vacuum tubes and simple semiconductors with basement-workshop tech, and use them to run a shortwave radio system that can talk to the other side of the planet. People are doing that right now.

Flagg, are you going to offer a paper on the subject?

Don, of course you've got to deal with the contaminated plants at the end of their life cycle. That can be done by sequestration, or by processing the plants to extract heavy metals or what have you -- many of them are useful enough in their own right.

Gerry, I'm glad somebody noticed that bit! Yes, I'll consider it as a topic for a future post. The very short version is that repeated "coincidences," whether or not they are indications of causative or correlative links "out there" in the world of phenomena, very often reveal what's happening in the consciousness of the observer, and dismissing them as meaningless closes off an important channel of information. More on this down the road.

latheChuck said...

Twilight- Can you improve the efficiency of a TEG by generating low voltage/high current and boosting it with a switching regulator? It seems to me that this would reduce the resistive loss of many constantan wires in series.

Anyone considering non-photovoltaic solar energy systems should try to find a copy of "Solar Energy Handbook", Kreider and Kreith, McGraw-Hill, 1981. In particular, the first chapter describes 2500 years of solar energy exploitation, having often come close to competing against hydrocarbon fuels. With future scarcity of hydrocarbons in mind, some of these designs may live again. It's important, too, to learn from the failures of past efforts. It's one thing to put a hot-water storage tank in the attic right under the flat-plate collector; it's another thing to guarantee that it will never corrode to the point of leaking water into the occupied space!

In 1912, a solar-powered steam engine producing 50 bhp (37 kW mechanical power) was installed in Egypt, but a year after it went into operation, WWI broke out and fuel oil became available, so it was no longer economical to maintain. The parabolic troughs filled one acre.

Obviously, photovoltaic cell development has come a long way since 1981, but if we have to give up silicon (or other semiconductor) wafers, we might reconsider designs of the early 20th century.

John Michael Greer said...

Kristiina, fascinating! No, I hadn't heard about the Yule Goat. My take is that Krampus is still very much a projection of our shadow, because he represents the thing nobody in the comfortable classes of the industrial world likes to talk or think about -- our absolute dependence on the cycles of nature and on our own biology. Biophobia is very deeply entrenched in the modern mind.

Lewis, thanks for the link!

Captain D., either of those would be great topics for a paper. Shall I expect one or both from you?

KCR, are you considering a paper on the subject?

G-minor, no, we haven't. The accident I described is what happens *after* Unit 4 catches fire and makes a quarter of Honshu uninhabitable for millennia. Until that happens, people can pretend that it won't.

Steve, nope, no limit at all. I'm unlikely to choose more than two from any one person for the anthology, but the more good papers you put in, the better your chance of being included!

Max, well, let's see whether it actually happens.

Tyler, that would be a very good paper. One thing I'd bring up, though, is that efficiency of energy conversion is not the only thing that matters. If you have low conversion efficiency, but the technology is cheap, easy to build, and has a very long working life, it can be more efficient in human terms -- and economic ones -- to go with that, in place of a technology that's more efficient in the strict sense but costs more, requires more infrastructure, and has a shorter working life. You can get a decent Seebeck Effect with simple bimetallic strips -- the Soviets used to make DC generators powered by a kerosene lantern to power radios in Siberia, for example, and those were an extremely efficient use of limited resources.

Max, the first thing on my wish list is the statement of a problem. The second is anything but vaporware -- did you notice that I mentioned there's already been quite a bit of experimentation done? As for the relevance of cleanup, the generations that will come after ours have already been guaranteed a messy, toxic environment, and I don't think it's a bad idea to help get them some tools to help clean it up. As for the third option, I agree that it may just be the most important -- and I'm wondering if you'd be willing to take the lead in making it happen. Somebody in the scientific community needs to do so!

Steven, of course that's a problem as well. We have no shortage of problems just now...

latheChuck said...

Re: Ham radio. I recently, for the first time, sent an email via ham radio. From this old laptop, through the USB port, the "modem", the VHF radio, the antenna, the local gateway node, into the Internet (where-ever THAT is) to, delivered through COMCAST, my cable modem, my router, and back into the Ethernet port on the laptop! (It takes mumbling to one's self to a Whole New Level.)

The radio link runs 1200 bits per second, by the way, or about 100 characters per second. There are other modems which run faster, by the way.

If the is no Internet, we can pass digital traffic peer-to-peer.

If there is no computer, we fall back to voice (50-100 words per minute?), and then to Morse code (~10 words per minute, though experts can go much faster).

From College Park, Maryland, I've copied a Morse signal from Puerto Rico, transmitted at 10W, so ham radio can indeed excel in the bits per second per mile per watt competition.

John Michael Greer said...

GHung, and of course those are all valid points. One of the reasons that I stressed that all entries should start by accepting the reality of the Long Descent was to try to head off the "buy into this technology and consumer society can continue forever" twaddle.

You might look into mechanical mounts for astronomical telescopes, by the way -- back in the pre-computer days, there were quite a few very clever means to keep a telescope focused on a given spot of sky despite the rotation of the Earth. The same tech could certainly be used with solar energy devices.

Wiseman, a world after fossil fuels will likely have a lot of resemblances to the world before fossil fuels. Still, we're not going "back" -- we're going forward; it just so happens that forward also means down.

Myriad, delighted to hear that you're still working on the plywood computer! You can certainly submit more than one paper; I'm unlikely to include more than two from any one author in the anthology, but the more you submit, the better your chances -- provided that they're good solid papers, of course.

Tom, Stirling engines are certainly one option. Are you going to submit a paper on them?

Twilight, go ahead and use the circuit boards and components; all of that can be duplicated by basement tech -- for heaven's sake, I made the circuit board for my first CW transceiver myself, back when I was a Boy Scout -- but there's no reason to hassle with it in the prototype.

Carlo, are you going to submit a paper proposing that as social tech?

Redtail, er, perhaps you'll explain how this comment was relevant to this post.

Toomas, I'd be pleased to see a paper on deindustrial computing...

Harry, most interesting.

Steve Carrow said...

John Michael:
Well, one more engineer posting for the first time. I've been following for a while, but this one gave that extra nudge. You certainly have cast a wide net with this challenge. From the prior comments, one can see a wide variety of assumptions on problem boundary conditions, or how far down the descent one has traveled, and what resources are still available to draw from. Or what is the most pressing problem for that matter. Maybe electronic devices are just too much trouble at some point? Maslow's hierarchy will override other drivers of technology's future direction.I will submit at least one essay, but I need to puzzle on this a bit. As you say, the energy descent poses a twofold challenge for the technology of the future. Not only will the high emergy infrastructure not be there to count on for supplying knowledge and energy dense materials, but many things we would currently strive to hang on to may well be irrelevant in the future.

John Michael Greer said...

Robo, you're certainly right that a lot of things we do with electricity these days can just as well be done with other energy sources -- or simply not done at all. Still, have you ever tried to read a book by firelight? There's a good reason why so many homes in the farm belt of the US before rural electrification got wind turbines generating 12 or 24 volts, and used it to run one or two light bulbs in the evening. Also, communications technologies are much easier to run with electricity than with other energy sources. Those are the two really good uses of electricity I see on a home level.

Dan, shall I expect a paper from you on solar updraft towers as a deindustrial energy technology?

John, to my mind that's an extremely simplistic way of thinking, and not especially helpful, either.

SLClaire, excellent! I'll look forward to your paper.

Glenn, solar thermal steam engines are certainly an option -- Augustin Mouchot's designs have long seemed to me to be worth a good second look.

Russ, excellent! Thank you.

Jason, that's really good to hear -- both the biochar and the Cornish!

Cathal, excellent. I'll look forward to your paper.

Orwellian, the thing that's really worrying about the nuclear waste situation is that credible accident scenarios go far beyond Fukushima. It's the "everyone dies in a 200 square mile region" sort of accident that I was discussing.

Angus, please do consider entering something.

Matthias, thank you -- I hope somebody else has the time to look into these.

Flute, fascinating! The whole field of European Yuletide spirits is relatively new to me.

John Michael Greer said...

Betsy, perhaps you'll consider summarizing what's known about phage therapy in a paper for the contest...

Jon, not even close. A milligram of high-level waste ingested by you or any other human being is more than enough to guarantee a slow and painful death. You really ought to take the time to think through claims like this before making them.

Bill, the other way around the same problem is to make sure that printing press technology survives. You don't need books to last for centuries if new copies can be printed at will -- and that seems like a more feasible approach to me.

DeAnander, I expect us to see that sort of thing coming from a very large number of comfortably middle class activists. That's been the tragedy of the baby boom generation all along: at once one of the most privileged and one of the most idealistic generations in modern history, they've been faced time and again with the choice between preserving their privileges and living up to their ideals, and the ideals have come in second every single time.

GreenEngineer, that's certainly possible. The question in my mind is who's going to do the research. Have you considered widening your range of professional knowledge in this direction?

Dowsergirl, that's a good point. There are plenty of nonpharmaceutical therapies that have very good results -- prostate massage for men, for example, seems to be just as good at preventing prostate abnormalities as breast massage for women is at preventing breast cancer. Of course any reference to that is a threat to Merck's profit margins...

John Michael Greer said...

Chuck, 10 wpm on Morse code? That's a bare minimum. 20 wpm used to be standard, and that plus a great many useful abbreviations make CW at least as fast as voice.

Steve, excellent! Yes, it's a deliberately wide net. I'll look forward to your paper.

ganv said...

One fascinating thing about science based technology is how muti-purpose it can be. In the future, for every person thinking about how to minimize the technological complexity needed to build solar generating systems, we will have someone thinking about how to build military hardware to conquer and someone thinking about how to extract the last bit of burnable fuel. Science based technology offers many avenues for pursuit of each of these goals, (and it will allow people to pursue many other goals as well). Appropriate technology in the future is going to depend critically on what humans have done in pursuit of these goals. If we happen to extract a lot of carbon and maintain a large population on a planet 10C warmer than today, we need different technology than if we kill each other off in resource wars. And of course if enlightenment magically started spreading like the flu and everyone decided to work together toward the least disruptive adjustment to the constraints of the future, a different set of technology is needed. It all depends on what the humans do. And we can only guess what the humans are going to do.

My best guess starts from the hypothesis that there are many configurations of society accessible to people with science based technology. Our current configuration of growth and extravagant resource waste is coming to an end. But the societies to follow may well remain technologically quite complex. (So I don't think White's law is very useful. Complexity clearly doesn't depend directly on energy flow. As a simple example, note that the most complex things in our solar system live on planet earth, not at the surface of the sun. One way for a society to become more complex is to harness more energy. But there are many other ways to increase complexity. Advanced human technologies include hand held computers that require a tiny fraction of the energy that a human requires.) There are massive changes between here and the future configurations of technology because much of our infrastructure is unsustainable. But I don't think 'descent' is a good framework to think about this. It assumes that the final point is simple (or at least at a known elevation), when it seems human culture is likely to evolve on an unpredictable trajectory between configurations that are quite complicated and include some technology that is more complex than we have today.

Joe said...

Aloha JMG,

I would like to second what Stuart Jeffry said about concentrated solar power (CSP), but with a slight modification. Frank Shuman showed that CSP was perfectly suitable for significant quantities of mechanical power over 100 years ago. Check out his thermal power station in Maadi, Egypt circa 1912. It looks remarkably similar to the latest parabolic trough systems.

Plus, while CSP to mechanical power is within the realm of "craft" construction, it is only a slight step up in complexity to run the engine or turbine powered electrical generator that Stuart mentioned. While wind-to-mechanical predates steam, steam to electric predates wind to electric. More importantly, any of the forgoing is far more efficient than heat to electric via the Seebeck effect.

CSP is so simple in concept and practice that it will likely find a place in human cultures that have technologies ranging from the horse and buggy to the electric train.

Indeed, when one combines CSP together with inexpensive high temperature sensible heat storage, it could have also powered our present high-tech civilization. It's probably too late now, but there were sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels; we just didn't build them.

latheChuck said...

By the way, the keyword to search on for "low power amateur radio communications" is "QRP". A typical QRP transceiver draws less than 1 watt when receiving, and less than 10 when transmitting trans-continental/trans-oceanic messages.

Joel said...

This isn't an essay, but it's a neat item to guide the process of weatherproofing: it uses a long-exposure camera, plus a custom-built handset with three-color LEDs and an IR thermometer to produce something akin to a thermal image, only with somewhat less nuance in thermal information but a much more recognizable image.

Stephen said...

A company called Avto metals claims to of made highly efficient thermoelectric devices, alas using nano materials.

If a genetic engineer could create a bacteria capable of digesting plastics that could reduce the Pacific garbage patch.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@Bill Blondeau:

Paper isn't inherently all that fragile; it depends on what you make it from and how you make it.

The earliest printed books, 1450-1500, if they are in clasped bindings made during the same decades, are incredibly sturdy. They will take all sorts of abuse that would destroy many a book printed after about 1600. You could send one flying with a blow from a hockey stick, if the clasps were closed (and if they stayed closed), and it wouldn't be all that much the worse for the wear.

It's not just the excellent paper (or sometimes the parchment) that makes these books so sturdy. The printer's ink is mostly carbon-based, and thus not particularly corrosive. The bindings are pigskin over thick hardwood boards, the thread is high-quality, and the sewing is strong and thick. The clasps are heavy metal, as are the corner guards and the bosses.

And "we" -- that is, historians fo the book -- still know how to make this kind of paper and ink, how to make a mold and matrices for casting moveable type, how to build a 1400s printing press to the original specifications, and so forth. All this has carefully been reconstructed from contemporary accounts and from a sort of "archaeology of the book" done on actual books printed during that period.

The 20th-century books that detail all these things are an obvious candidate for preservation into the Long Descent.

You can also still find people who know how to set moveable type. All us boys had to take a semester of print shop in Junior High School back in the '50s, and I still remember how it is done. Like riding a bicycle, you never lose the muscle memory.

provo said...

JMG, GHung, et al -- I play around a lot with concentrated solar, and IMHO parabolas are too complicated to build and not needed.

Check out some reverse engineering I did last summer of a design :

Mostly I use it for pizza, but I'll give some thought to a TEG at the focus :-)

Ruben said...

@GreenEngineer. This sounds fascinating. Please write more.

@DeAnander. That was indeed super irritating.

@Bill. The thing about the old school printing press is that it is really irritating to set type. But current printing plates are essentially immortal, given any attention whatsoever to storage. So just reprint the book from existing plates every 100 years. Can we make plates in the EcoTechnic future?

shiningwhiffle said...

One thing that just struck me (and I may try to write an essay about this) is that the field of computing will likely survive the Long Descent, simply because it's not primarily about electrical gizmos.

One thing I make sure to teach my students every semester is that "computer" was originally a job title. In fact, many of the first programmers were women women who had been hired as "computers" during WWII.

Indeed, the very first computer programmer was also a woman: Ada Lovelace. She wrote programs for Charles Babbage's never-completed analytical engine.

Which brings me to the second reason computing may well remain relevant even in the depths of the deindustrial age: there's already a team working on finishing the design for the analytical engine, with an eye to actually building it:

Since the analytical engine is entirely mechanical, it might well be within reach of at least the very rich, governments, and maybe the largest universities.

John Michael Greer said...

Ganv, White's Law deals with human societies, not astronomical objects; since there's no human societies on the face of the sun, your argument is invalid. (That sounds weirdly like a Lolcat caption, doesn't it?) Equally, as I keep on pointing out, it's not the energy used to power a technology that matters, but the energy needed to make it, and to maintain the infrastructure that makes it, powers it, maintains it, and gives it something useful to do. A human being can be manufactured by two human beings of appropriate age and genders; a microcomputer needs one or more factories, plus mines, power plants, etc., etc. Another Lolcat caption: "This computer cannot have puppies; your argument is invalid."

Joe, I'm familiar with the Maadi installation, and with the history of solar energy generally. That's certainly one option to consider.

Chuck, yes, and I should have mentioned that, shouldn't I?

Joel, thanks for the link.

Stephen, one of these days we'll start to think twice before releasing organisms at random into existing ecosystems...

Provo, sweet. This is why my plan for a solar thermoelectric generator uses a conical reflector -- it's modeled on Augustin Mouchot's solar steam engines -- and one of those evacuated tubes with a copper rod up the middle that are used in a lot of solar water heating installations these days. The tube runs up the center of the conical reflector, soaking up heat; the bare end of the copper rod is behind the point of the cone, and that's where you attach the bimetallic strips, with big aluminum cooling fins to radiate heat from the cold ends; a gimmick to keep the device pointed at the sun also keeps the cooling fins in shade. The efficiencies are probably pretty modest, but it would be cheap and easy to build.

Whiffle, until the Analytical Engine gets built and tested, it's still vaporware. Myself, I tend to put my trust in slide rules!

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Steven--Today on the radio I heard an entrepreneur talking about his startup making cheap drone aircraft. His machinists are in Tijuana; the engineers are over the border in San Diego.

@Robo-- One advantage of electric light is that if you knock over the lamp, you don't set the house on fire. Your point about the uselessness of isolated advanced tech in an environment of more primitive technology is valid and JMG wrote a short story featuring it a few years ago.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Cathal--Perhaps you would know whether the chemical reactions by which electric eels and other sea creatures generate a potential could be made to work in a clump of cells without the eel, and whether such an engineered organism has any chance of being a practical source for small amounts of electricity. It would need to be fed, unlike your trees, but the voltages generated are higher.

As is generally known, the gene for bioluminescence was isolated from the firefly and has been inserted into various unrelated organisms. I don't know whether it's government regulation or economics that has delayed any applications other than for research. I think a night garden with glowing plants lighting the pathways would be pretty neat.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Once the anthology is published, some of the entries could be turned into crowd-sourced projects and put into action.

People here often ask if there is anything we can do collectively beyond our private efforts. This might be a direct way to help for those in a position to do so.

Leo said...

For the genetic engineering argument:
The best way to proceed would be to follow the approach here,
Silk worms have also been engineered.

Instead of finding something new, find something that natures already produced but is in a inaccessable form and make it accessable. Its a lot less work (the genes aready exist) and animals or plants with completly known qualities (like goats) can be used. Which is safer.

Seb Ze Frog said...

Hi to all,

thinking about this wish list and browsing the comments made me want to share
with you a little story that I think is related to the topic.

Few years ago I was working as a postdoc in a group that had bought a very nice
coffee machine. For context, you have to know that while I know scientists who
will continue to do research even without being paid, those who will without
coffee are rarer than pandas in the desert.

Anyway, the coffee supplies were bought by one of the senior scientists, based
on a trust-and-pay system. When I went to pay for the first time, he showed me a
little metal box on a shelf. I opened it, and found money, a pen, and a piece of
paper. I put the money in, and wrote down my name and for how much I was in.

Then, I smugly turned to him and said "Man, you are the boss of a group that
leads computing in one of the top satellite experiments, and who sits on one of
the world's three largest and most powerful computing centers, and you keep
track of the coffee money like that ? ".

To that, he smiled and answered "Appropriate technology".

I like to tell this story because each time I feel the reminiscence of the spark
it lit in me. You know, this little timeless "click". You might not feel it when
you read it, but even then, just the pleasure of telling it was worth the time
to me.

I remembered it in the context of this discussion, because it made me think
again that in an age where we invented "planned obsolescence" (If Hell exists,
and Hell has N circles, we deserve an N+1 one for this sin), while we have the
potential to make tools so resilient that they could still be useful artifacts
in a few centuries, I don't think we have the ability to make them. Several
comments mentioned that there is little incentive currently for professional
engineers and scientists to explore this path, and it is as true as it is
sad. On the other hand, I saw several projects descriptions that were.

To them and those I don't know off I offer the little story above, and the spark
that goes with it. May you never lack coffee ! (Or tea. Those are two schismatic
schools, and since no tea nor coffee crusade has stated yet, this state of
affair is likely to pertain for the foreseeable future)

Sebzefrog at hotmail dot fr

Cherokee Organics said...


Humans have been bad to the fragile environment here Down Under and now Krampus is running amok and giving us our just deserts.

Today on Melbourne's outskirts I saw 42 degrees (107.6 Fahrenheit) and the wind was howling in from the centre of the continent. Dry lightning had kicked off a fire this morning not too far from me in the Lederderg Gorge and I watched as "Elvis" the water tanker helicopter flew off towards it. Volunteer crews were also on the ground too. Apparently it is now contained. Imagine that scene in an energy constrained future. Looking down into the valley below it is fairly smoky. Here, the house can look after itself, but if only it didn't take so many years to grow a productive tree...

Keep us in your thoughts as you shiver through the Northern winter. Summer has a long way to go yet. Pray for rain seems like a good suggestion just about now.

As a suggestion to readers, electricity is really useful for pumps (DC pumps are particularly efficient) and moving liquids like water is a really valuable thing - especially up hill (as I can attest). How about an easy to make and efficient hand operated pump than can lift water up an incline?

I'll put my hand up for a worm powered crap muncher (ie. an aerobic fast compost producer for those more technically inclined). A very simple and useful item indeed for most organic wastes including human wastes!

I'm planting oak trees, lots of them as a protective border for the orchard, but I need a decade or two of uninterrupted growing conditions.

Hi Thijs,

Thanks for your thoughts. There are a lot of individual fires extending from the south in Tasmania through Victoria, New South Wales and right into Queensland. Temperatures generally peak here around late January early February, so I'm quite nervous. The rains have failed here since early September, but the orchard is still limping along. I was literally ready to start the sprinklers today and head off (run from the hills for the musicians in the readership!). Mind you, in the North West of the continent there's a category four cyclone... That's summer Down Under for you.

Hi BoysMom,

Antibiotics. Perhaps this may not be as difficult as you think? Herb lore shows that many plants have antibiotic, anti-viral, and / or anti-bacterial properties. That's just the beginning of their uses too.

Hi Leo,

Good luck with your placements and I hope you get the spot that you are after.

Hi Betsy,

Thanks for the tip re Steve Solomon. I haven't read his work. My go to author here is Jackie French who writes both fiction and non-fiction and walks the talk as she has been at organic gardening and self-sufficiency for over 30 years. I've visited her garden and it is truly an amazing place. I mustn't complain about the weather as one year she had 90 consecutive days in excess of 40 degrees (being a bit further north than me and in a drier location)!

The food we eat nowadays isn't the same stuff that I ate in my youth. Perhaps this is one answer to last weeks back and forward discussions.



Lei said...

I am from Bohemia, but I have never heard of Krampus - though we have quite a few similar demons in our folklore and fairytales. Which of course does not matter much. Just that I have been surprized.

The thing with books concerns me as well, but I wanted to suggest something similar to Robert Mathiesen, although I am not a historian of the book. However, if you are interested in history of literature or simply in historical philology, you know there are relatively many books that survived for several centuries, including e.g. low-cost popular literature from the 18th century etc. And if take the example of China (I am a sinologist), one can find both hand-written and printed books dating from the Song dynasty, mostly 12th c., though these tend to be the oldest preserved versions of ancient texts. Ming prints (14th-16th c.) are relatively common. And all this book culture is purely pre-modern and pre-fossil. As well as the whoole technology of print. It is however important that there is someone who understands it and has experience with it: there are still some older people left who worked with metal types, but the art is vanishing, of course.

More generally, I am happy that philology is not much dependent on high technology (though computers do help much in some respects), and also that I studied Chinese in basically pre-electronic times (though it is only 15 years ago!), so I am comfortable with paper dictionaries, pen and paper, and we my memory. Present students are mostly dependent on electronic devices, and also their memory is poorly excercised (beacause they can always look up a word in a phone and so on) - which fits in the ommipresent ideology of "new learing" - memorizing is bad, you do not need to know anything by heart, it is not creative, everything is on the internet, etc. This is very dangerous in a way.

phil harris said...

I remember punched cards. Jacquard looms go back a bit. The loom 'reads' the punch card. It is pure vapour-ware just now (like minutes old in my head) but would it be possible to mechanise the slide-rule, in principle?
And going a bit further back, what was that wonderful Greek tool for calculating arithmetic-progression cycles - Antikythera?
I can remember just before electronics got seriously useful in control technology an amazing 'fluidics' control technology. If I had been senior enough I would have tried to get the one I saw in action safely transferred to a museum.
The trick is not so much the exact material form, but to get the mental manipulation embedded in an exemplary working prototype. Posterity can work it out, with luck?
PS There are wonderful line-of-sight mini radio communication networks – low power – useful for local communities?
PPS Back in the day, before they were invented by others I was much taken with the idea of low-speed flying wings that could be landed on two human legs. Turned out quite dangerous to fly and limited utility, but … ?
AND horse-power has still got a lot of legs left in it. Peak-Horses in farming on the Great Plains was around 1920s. Here in Britain 23 pairs of Shires on a big outfit 4 miles from where I write were competitive within living memory.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi DeAnander,

Yes, I came across that one too. Hmmm. As I read it I kept thinking, "yeah, like what?".

It reminded me of the film, "The Big Chill", when the characters were in this massive house gorging on food and drink, congratulating themselves on how they'd achieved so much. Me thinks they'd actually been drinking too much wine! Didn't like that film.



phil harris said...

This is not vapour-ware. Though it does not solve the large legacy of energy-wasting housing in Britain (23M homes), I like it. And a large chunk of our house needs re-building, so I guess it will happen one day. I would like to put together the idea of long lived structures that will still work satisfactorily centuries from now.

Even in wet Britain, cow dung (short durable fibres – see one of the recent comments on this blog) mixed with slaked lime (heated carbonate rock in powder form – and one can use the principles of Roman concrete) protect for 600 – 800 years an otherwise vulnerable quick-grown wooden matrix (e.g. split hazel rods) set in a timber oak frame. A version in France has now got a modern renaissance with short hemp fibres substituted for the dung. The alkali preservation principle still applies and the wet-mix can be cast in a self-supporting wall round a simple wooden frame.

The lime fraction gradually absorbs CO2 and will eventually go back to rock carbonate. The main advantage though apart from ease of construction is that the wall can be airtight and provides a warm high heat-mass structure fairly easily sealed round openings and piercings.

We intend to test whether it can be integrated with Passiv Haus design without so much of the difficult and exacting quality control needed for taped and caulked joints, nowadays needing exotic materials with a life-time of perhaps only a few decades.

Passiv Haus needs glass of course, and I am even contemplating stainless steel for roof sheeting (the latter has been used locally where salt resistance and longevity were rated important).

It would be nice to leave behind a 500 year house well above the flood plain. And to imagine it could be renewed 500 years from now. That is a lot of families secured for a low energy life.

I visited a new ‘conventional’ small Passiv Haus where the >90% efficient air-exchange heat recovery machine was a wonder to behold – but at the end of the day a gas porous insulating thatch might have to do for our more distant descendants.

MAI said...


Why not define in a bit more detail exactly both which stages of, say, PV manufacture you find difficult to see surviving the next, say, 20 years and why?

I've read people like Heinberg's take on this matter and while he writes well I find myself thinking that he's long on "it's a product of a complicated supply chain and hence prone to disruption" and "we'll run out of fossil fuels one day and because the current manufacturing techniques use lots of fossil fuels this clearly means they will be no longer possible" but light on any deeper analysis.

I am genuinely interested in a more granular breakdown of why and when you think this type of manufacturing will no longer be possible.

If you think you've already addressed this issue in sufficient detail fair enough but I should say that my feeling is that a bit more detail wouldn't go astray. I think we would both agree that it's very difficult to have a useful discussion about generalities.

Karim said...

Greetings all!

The contest sounds tempting! In my mind there are four uses for electricity that are really useful.
(1) electric lights, (2) Communications, (3) motors, (4) refrigeration. Anyone, any thoughts about low tech refrigeration, electric or non electric? That should be a worthwhile addition to the anthology.

Flagg707 said...

@JMG regarding a paper on the subject of used nuclear fuel:

I had actually been trying to puzzle out how one might use low-tech materials to do gross detection of high levels of radiation. That said, I could probably knock out an additional write-up on waste storage or at least radiation and chemistry concerns that derive from that for educated lay readers. I would probably come at it from the point of view of dealing with it in its current form - used fuel rods in either dry cask storage or pools, no reprocessing, no rational policy implemented to treat and store it.

Hmmmm. Let me noodle on this some more.

jcummings said...

Hi - some version of this idea has probably been posted, but here's my submission:

Super interesting challenge!

A Walk in the Woods said...

Charles Babbage's never-completed analytical engine was plagued by thermal expansion and contraction between the gears and such.

It wasn't just a case of the room warming up or cooling down and affecting the mechanical analytical engine. They could probably have rigged up a half way descent climate control for the room.

The problem was that the inner workings of the mechanical analytical engine heated up(and cooled off) at different rates than the outer gears and do-hickies.

The faster the gears turned for increased computational speed, the wider the spread in temperatures across the different parts of The Engine. The friction differentials proved too much for the smooth and accurate operation of the entire mechanism.

In other words, there were Limits to the concept and implementation of said device, imagine that: limits...gasp!

The speed of mechanical computation has hard Newtonian limits.

Heat, fraction, you know the drill.

But doesn't Unlimited Human Creativity/Ingenuity always trump Physics?

We've been sold this cart of road apples for centuries.

Limits apply to everything from Princes to Paupers and modern propaganda, especially from 'the Enlightenment' tried to foist a patently faux fairy tale upon the Western mind.

flute said...

@Bill Blondeau:
I'll chime in with Robert Mathiesen that well made books aren't that fragile. A lot of it depends on what kind of paper you use. At a previous job I've handled both print and manuscripts all the way back to 17th century and the paper was fine. Many of them (especially manuscripts) had not been stored in any particularly good location, but just in a normal home of those times, which meant no central heating in winter and no AC in summer. Humidity and temperature vary *a lot* between summer and winter here in Sweden, and in wintertime a lot during the course of the day if there's no central heating.
The problem with current books is that they're nearly all printed on paper made from wood fibres, which breaks down much quicker than paper made from textile fibres. Paper used to (pre-1840s) be made from rags, i.e. fibres from hemp, linen or cotton. The older the books are, the greater the chance that the fibre is of better quality, since linen and hemp are better than cotton.
So the technology for printing and binding durable paper books using low-tech equipment is already well developed, just that very few people nowadays actually possess the skill to do it.

anagnosto said...

I have a couple of articles published on phytochelatins. Those constitute a last defence line in plants against heavy metals, most obviously cadmiun, also copper or nickel.
I would like to make you a question, what is your position in respect to transgenic plants? People use to think on the Monsanto horrors but there are plenty of other possibilities. You know, tomatoes used to be poisonous. Cheers.

ando said...


Ecology appears to be the natural manifestation of non-duality. Or as Dirk Gently calls it, "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things" Therefore it is a logical interest for an advaitin. Is there no such manual currently available, of which you approve??


dowsergirl said...

Oh dear...the topic of books and information is just huge. I work as a public librarian and am no longer able to even purchase a hard copy of certain items. Its all been digitized. What we used to have in our reference department is in databases online. AND the publishing industry is charging more money for the product, so costs for public access is more than our budgets can bear. We hold huge booksales now that are well attended, with old and donated items, but massive amouts go to the landfill and there is not much we can do about it. Soon we will have nothing left to sell....

Ken Boak said...


I discovered your blog by accident and spent most of the holiday catching up with recent years posts.

I'm interested in the direct conversion of sunlight to mechanical energy - and to cut to the chase, here's a solar motor a friend in MN made a few years ago.

It's a variation of the Stirling engine - but simpler, with most parts readily available at Home Depot.

This one is not particularly powerful, but scaled up to a roof mounted unit with 8' x 4' solar collectors, it could generate a few tens of watts.

Solar powered Stirling's were originally proposed in the 1880's by Swedish engineer John Ericsson.

Ceworthe said...

Well, here is a youtube wideo on using clear plastic sheeting and water to make a solar cooker that I thought was cool
Of course, clear plastic would have to be able to be made in the future (perhaps plant based?) and you would have to be in an area where the sun shines with some regularity (unlike central NY often)
On the Krampus appearing everywhere to you, perhaps he is saying that the time is getting closer where nature will have the upper hand. Interpreting it as preparing for that is excellent.
I have been pondering and will have to think further about how to explain ecology to anyone, no matter what time period or worldview that they may hold. There is the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address, that thanks all of nature for what it does for us humans, but it doesn't make the connections like ecology would. Does one say, here are real world examples of how we screwed the ecology up and here are the consequences? Or does one delineate a project that will show how things are connected and what happens when they are interfered with? How to make the lesson real in the here and now in whatever space and time is my conundrum. There are warnings of things done in the past that didn't work out so well in some religions, but as time goes by memory and reality fades. Similar to the idea of how does one communicate that a place where nuclear waste is stored is dangerous thousands of years into the future? Will have to review my ecology books and aforementioned traditions handed down and ponder....

Red Neck Girl said...

I would love to hear about ways to clean up contaminated water.

I grew up in FAR Northern California below the three Shastas. The biggest pollution point in the valley was a natural site that was exacerbated by mining next to the Sacramento River. It's called Iron Mountain Mine and the water that seeps out of it is toxic and was named as one of the top twenty sites in the nation.

At this point I can't remember all the individual toxins that are in the water that filters through holding ponds before it gets into the Sacramento.

I do know the smoke from the ore processed from that mine in the late 1800s was so toxic it killed much of the forest that covered the foothills around the valley. If anyone want's a real challenge there's one for you in a lovely vacation spot in N. California.


Ken Boak said...

Here's an article on John Ericsson's solar powered engine from the Chicago Daily 1879.

The Ericsson engine was a type of hot air engine (similar to Stirling) which was popular for water pumping between about 1870 and 1920. It was normally heated by coal, gas or wood.

In a Long Descent, we may lose our modern computer technology, but we might still be able to support a Victorian Industrial Society, with telegraph (the Victorian Internet), steam engines and a lot more manual skill & labour.

We can't "uninvent" the last 200 years of industrial progress - but large sectors of technology may be unavailable to us because of a lack of cheap energy.

Perhaps fossil (or biomass) fuelled mechanical labour will rise in cost to the point where some tasks are cheaper using human power and horses or oxen.

It's going to be a rough ride for most of us.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

@MAI wrote "Why not define in a bit more detail exactly both which stages of, say, PV manufacture you find difficult to see surviving the next, say, 20 years and why?"

I'm not JMG, nor an expert in the production of silicon cells or PV panels, but where to begin....there are numerous places the production process will break down.

First of all, acquiring the silicon to process. If it is not local to where the production takes place, then any where in the digging up and transporting the material is subject to breakdown or to become uneconomical.

And you need silicon that is 99% pure, and if you don't have good feedstock to start with, then you need to lengthen the production process to generate that level of purity. That takes more energy.

Making silicon for panels requires huge resources of heat in very hot furnaces (2,750 degrees Fahrenheit to melt silicon), which can only come from specialized furnaces that can maintain a consistent temperature, and that in turn requires volumes of electricity - in other words, not something that can be done in the backyard or by a wood or coal fire.

And then the silicon needs to be cut very thin, doped with very precise amounts of other materials (which in turn have to come from somewhere, likely not where the production is taking place). Clean rooms are needed for these later stages, which require specialized fans, air filtering, and so on, again requiring very exacting situations, like uninterrupted electricity, consistent temperatures, and so on.

And the list goes one.

This is not a backyard operation, and is very dependent on mining, transportation over distances, electricity, etc. And in the long term, technology that will survive or worth pursuing will be technology that can be done in essentially every backyard with local materials and simple production methods that can be taught and learned by basic people for local use.

Richard Larson said...

I am a person that learns about other's ideas then tries them out. So unless a lightning bolt zaps an idea into my brain - yep, this is highly unlikely - can't imagine how I could help with this contest.

I wish to have learned about Krampus before this skeptical engineer from the power company came over last Friday to check out my newly installed photovoltaic system though. Instead of insulting him with a story about how I wanted to avoid polluting the atmosphere, I could have just told him this story. Better chance he would have looked that one up and considered it.

Oh, um, I might also have mentioned something about there is enough carbon in the atmosphere to cause a 20 year drought too. And, um, and that might be cause for hungry people to look for someone to blame and hang from a lamppost. Oh boy. He cut short the inspection and told me my system was approved for net metering and was jumping back in the car like 2 seconds later.

Not sure where I got that one from... :-)

wall0159 said...

Regarding refrigeration, the Einstein fridge needs only a heat source and has no moving parts. To me, this is a perfect contender for a solar concentrator and wouldn't warrant electricity:

A couple of useful techs (not sure if they exist or not):
1. maggots for cleaning infection
2. stirling engine with minimal metal content (ceramic-based)
3. Someone talked about home-made insulin. I reckon a method of locally producing immunzation could be handy!
4. Maybe one of the more classically (as opposed to scientifically) educated people could write a short treatise on the medieval methods of memorisation -- that could be good too...
If someone wants to run with these, that'd be great!

Nick said...

One of my favorite ideas is a low pressure solar steam system first developed by American Solar Energy Engineer Frank Schuman. He invented and sucessfuly built several solar plants, but from what i gather one of his last solar ideas, the low pressure solar engine never saw full development due to the ramping up of the oil industry, WWI and ultimately his age.
The concept is that you can build low cost low temperature solar collectors in a variety of schemes. By running a steam cycle at sub atmoshperic pressures you can operate a steam engine with energy from the low cost collector. This was succesflly demonstrated here

Of course the drawbacks are low energy densities and low efficiencies. The later can be overcome by superheating the steam with some other combustible fuel source. The result is you could have simple hybrid solar steam cycle that gets 75% of its thermal energy from the sun, 25% from a combustible fuel source and has an overall cycle efficiency of 30%. I skectched out the idea a bit more fully here

I also believe that at such low pressures an alternative engine may be worthhile to pursue. A very simple low speed turbine comes to mind. No it would not need to be complicated, it would be on the order of complexity of an old wind mill, the differential pressures are only 2-3 times higher than what those were designed for.

The system would also have the advantage of also producing ample hydronic heating for homes, greenhouses or buildings.

K & C said...

" Creative thought is important here, but so is a solid grasp of the realities we face . . ."

On my first read of this sentence, I thought it said "a solid grasp of the nettles we face." Tough times ahead indeed.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

A couple of thoughts. First, since we are talking about technological progress I want to bring up Wright's Law. link link Put simply Wright's Law says that you get better with practice. Specifically it says that you can measure the improvement in a technical process as a function of cumulative production. Wright worked with airplanes and he noticed that every time the cumulative production double the price dropped by the same percent. I bring this up because I misread 'White's Law' in your post and because the cumulative production of parabolic Seebeck thermoelectric generators is approximately zero. That means that there are lots of gains to be had in the early production if, and only if, someone actually produces a few of them.

Wright's law isn't perfect. It can't forecast novel breakthroughs and it breaks down over the very long run as progress becomes asymptotic. But what it does tell us is right on target for this post. If you want a technology to work well you have to use it. More to the point, if YOU want a technology that no one is using to work well then YOU have to use it. There are somethings that can be counted on to happen automatically: the sun will come up tomorrow all by itself, humanity will burn all the fossil fuels we can find, death, taxes, etc. For everything else you have to be the change you wish to see in the world: democracy, slide rules, organic gardening, etc.

That said birth control is the technology that I think we will need but might not have. Birth control has a long history and there are some reasonably effective methods from preindustrial times but mass produced disposable latex probably won't make it through the long descent and I don't know enough chemistry to know if the pill can be made reliably in a low tech world. Lamb skins, condoms made from intestines, will always be available but they are relatively expensive. I imagine that regular access to lamb skins will be a luxury somewhat like regular consumption of meat is a luxury to most in a collapsing society.

The birth control technology that I think will work in the deindustrial future is the IUD. It requires only a small amount of copper, plastic, and skill. But every step of the process from the manufacture to the administration is managed by the healthcare industry. Trying to use 'the technology' on the level of the home economy would probably land one in jail for for a variety of violations. The problem, as I imagine it, is that people who lose access to the healthcare industry will lose access to the IUD. More and more people will lose access as we progress through the long descent until, eventually, there are no IUDs. I suspect that a small scale production of IUDs for local health professionals could work in some third world areas where there isn't any healthcare industry controlling the process or taboos and regulations for obtaining care outside the healthcare industry's purview. Doctors without borders and engineers without borders may find a paper on the subject useful. I will see what I can come up with.


team10tim said...

Hey hey BoysMom,

You might be interested in this: Take Two Beers and Call Me in 1,600 Years - use of tetracycline by Nubians and Ancient Egyptians Turns out that the Egyptians brewed a beer that produced the antibiotic tetracycline. I understand that we still have the recipe but I haven't yet found it online.


Grebulocities said...

You say, "one of these days we'll start to think twice before releasing organisms at random into existing ecosystems."

Of course, I agree completely. But almost any bioremediation technique is going to depend on releasing non-native organisms (whether or not they are genetically engineered) into existing, polluted ecosystems. The hope is that the organism causes less ecological damage than the pollutant(s) that are harming the environment in the first place. In some cases, such as the millions of tons of plastic in the world's oceans or major oil spills, I think it is probable that the rewards outweigh the risks.

Given the complexity of ecosystems, however, it is impossible to foresee all possibilities, and unintended consequences are a major risk. Do you have any ideas on how to make decisions about whether or not to apply risky strategies like bioremediation?

Kathleen Reynolds said...

Hmm. The topic of homemade antibiotics, combined with my longstanding love of herbalism and current interest in fermentation leads me to wonder if there's some common ground here...maybe a way to enhance anti-microbial herbs through fermentation? Something more suited to homescale production than penicillin, but more concentrated than the herbs by themselves?

Not that I would know how to give anything like a scientific testing to that idea. I suppose if my sister gets strep again, I could try to culture know, without messing up and infecting myself.

Myriad said...

Various aspects of this week's and last week's discussion remind me that as far as I can tell, there are some basic questions related to energy contraction that can not reliably be answered. That is, they can be answered with a reasonable amount of effort in some cases but not in most. Among them are:

1. How much energy is required to make a [thing]?

2. What is the EROEI of a given process, taking all relevant factors into account?

3. What technologies/products are and are not likely to exist in a given (broadly outlined) energy-contracted future scenario?

(I've split out further discussion of these questions, including why seemingly obvious methods of answering them don't usually work -- for instance, why the amount of energy currently used to make a [thing] often does not provide an answer to Question 1 -- to a blog post.)

I accept that everything that is unsustainable will not be sustained (which is a mere tautology); that significant energy contraction will occur soon and eventually will be followed by population contraction; that fantasies of boundless futures and of apocalyptic endings (neither of which I ever put much stock in anyhow) all miss the mark; and that preparation for worse- and worst-case scenarios, such preparation as is the predominant topic here, is justified, wise, and prudent. All the rest, every crucial detail of the journey and the destination, is in doubt.

So, what I want from Krampus is better methods of analysis and prediction, that can address questions like those I listed. I'm tired of trying to extrapolate from historical analogy, dubious models, false polarities, authority, and intuition. I'm tired of being on either side of some of these arguments about what's going away (my viewpoints make me a relative cornucopian here, and a relative doomer on my "home" forum), and of not even knowing which side I should be on, because the known facts plus the available methodologies fall short of adding up to answers. I'm especially tired of abstruse hypotheses about the mechanisms by which those holding a different viewpoint must have been rendered incapable of valid thinking.

My request should be right up Krampus's alley, because I'm not asking for reassurance or verification. I don't care about proving anyone right or wrong. I abjure any hopes and fears I might have harbored about those answers. Krampus is welcome to treat my wish as an opportunity to pull a classic "be careful what you wish for" on me.

So let's see if there's enough of this Krampus fellow in me, for that wish to have any effect over the coming year. Odd; his shape seems to resemble another dude, who's also all about consequences, and with whom I've had some issues in the past. I'll try not to hold that against him.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Cherokee Organics--Foot operated irrigation pumping is traditional technology in parts of the Middle East. I've seen a movie of it in operation: a man standing on top of a small water wheel and jogging in place.

If I have to move volumes of water by my own muscle power, I would rather use my legs or maybe a pulley system than a lever based device like a nineteenth century farmhouse pump. Maybe a treadle with a counterweight.

I don't know how efficient Archimedes screws are.

Existing rotary motion devices like capstans and grain mills could be adapted if you had a draft animal or extra people available, but you probably don't. There's a guy who invented the play pump, a water pump attached to a children's playground style merry-go-round; some were installed in developing nations but proved to be too hard to maintain.

team10tim said...

Hey hey Toomas,

Ah, machine code... My father used to tell a me a story about two Russians who rewrote/translated windows 3 into machine code. Not compiled from source code, mind you, but reverse engineered from functionality directly into machine code. I'm told that they did it in 27KB for the whole OS. It booted up in two seconds flat on an 8086. Or so I'm told. It might have been exaggerated like an old fisherman's tales.

But it brings up an interesting point. I bring this up because I used to think that there was a market for writing a modern OS in machine code. Writing the OS would be a huge undertaking because every line of code would need to be translated to machine code by a real human being who understands both what the program is trying to do and how that could be written in machine code most efficiently for that machine. The upside being that the OS would be much, much smaller and run much, much faster than a compiled version. I gave the idea up years ago because the architecture kept changing so quickly. Any machine I picked to work with would be hopelessly out of date well before I finished and the gains in processor speeds and storage capacities would dwarf any gains I had made.

But, depending on how the future goes, we may all be working on the same version of Myriad's plywood computer for decades. Just as food for thought Iceland currently has three aluminum smelters running off of the country's cheap geothermal electricity. Also, France has two solar furnaces for research into smelting and purification. They could probably be retasked to make some reasonably pure silicon for low power CMOS. Failing that glass blowers and seamstresses could (and did) make the vacuum tubes, core magnetic memory, and core rope memory for a small amount of computing power.

But it depends on the economics. There is going to be a heartless triage of resources as our massive fossil fuel subsidy wanes. What makes the cut will largely be determined by the present utility offered by a given technology.


Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@phil harris--On the Pacific Rim, we have to plan for earthquakes. Ordinary wood frame houses up to about three stories are flexible enough to survive a big quake with little or no damage if they have the right kind of foundation and cross-bracing. Unreinforced masonry is illegal for new construction.

How rigid do you think the mud brick over timber construction you describe would become? Rigid is not good if the ground underfoot moves frequently.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Ceworthe--Stories last. If you can think of a way to turn ecological thinking into a tale or fable, that's the way to go.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Zeb Ze Frog--Though not a scientist, I am both a Javacrucian and a Teaosophist.

Loch Wade said...

Perhaps an enormous comet-rogue planet-asteroid-and-Jesus-repulsor would be a good invention to have around. If it could be self-energized and sturdily built so that it pretty much worked automatically without much maintenance, then we could get on with a slow and polite descent into oblivion without any worries that our civilizational dotage might be hurried along by the importune and unwelcome arrival of any such objects.

xhmko said...

Hey JMG, been a while since I've posted, but have been reading regularly. This sounds great. I've recently been offered (yet to recieve) a position as resident artist at a tip shop. One of the idea's I've had is to have a design competition for making resources that regularly come through the tip into useful objects, that could be turned out on a regular basis, eg solar stills, pvc pipe pumps, etc. The catch is it has to be useful, and not just aesthetic, and it has to be made from scraps only. Maybe some glue or fasteners here or there.

Bio remediation is the key I feel. I have heard of some very successful uses of this. The problem as Allison mentioned is that it is essentially bio-accumulation. I have read f experiments using worms to deal with municipal sludge, with some pathogens being removed and heavy metals being accumulated by the worms. Together with myco-remediation, I'm picturing a multi stage remedial process including plants and worms. If there was something like a bio-foundry then, that extracted the metals - without causing more pollution in the process - then we may be on our way to a whole new R & D department for future governments and niches for entrepreneurs.

An idea that I have had kicking around for a while, is a series of greenhouses that extract transpiration from plants and drip-feed it to a well. In my mind it is done with glass doors and simple metal/timber frames and even with a tyre tube controlled vent that expands and contracts with temperature variation to allow for air flow at night.
I don't eevn know if it will work but it sounds neat.

Loch Wade said...

As for nuclear waste... the only thing that keeps that stuff from going critical and wiping out most life on the planet is pumps, circulating the water in the spent fuel cooling ponds!

Fer F**k's sake, ( I only say that for emphasis) really, it's true! How many 100's of Fukushimas worth of spent fuel rods are sitting near America's old and crumbling Nuke plants, packed in so closely together (because there isn't anywhere else to put the stuff,) that the only things standing between that fuel going critical and literally (I am not exaggerating) EXPLODING in a giant nuclear explosion, are some pumps, and some electrical transformers, and a few backup diesel motors and some generators???!!!

No, all it will take is one good CME, a grid shutdown, and 48 hours for the diesel to be expended, and KABOOM- that's the end of any long slow descent- it's instantaneous transport to the freakin' stone age.

Intelligence and more clever inventions is not going to solve our problems. Look where we are because we are so damned clever!

What is needed is wisdom, and that is a spiritual quality gained only by an attitude of reverent awe of God. Wisdom is the ability to reason from cause to effect on a moral plane.

Modern humans have forgotten that every action has a foundation in a moral economy, and that Wisdom sees ahead from the seed to the fruit, whether it be good, or evil.

Evil means produce evil ends, regardless of our attempts at self-delusion. Any sincere Sunday-school teacher could have told the nuclear scientists of the early 1940's the path they trod was one of darkness. Now we will pay the consequences.

Leo said...

@ Cherokee Organics

Thanks, hoping for RMIT sustainable systems engineering (mechanical focus) or enviromental engineering.

For the pump, a better option might be weight powered clockwork. A lighthouse i saw in WA was orginally turned by that, every 8 hours the weight had to be lifted. If you weant a constant flow, it would work well. However it might only be worthwhile for bigger jobs.

Frank Hemming said...

Does anybody know if the Fluidyne (Stirling engine water pump with no moving parts) has been scaled up for irrigation purposes? Also, could it be adapted for use as a heat powered pump (no electricity required) with solar water or central heating?

Ken Boak said...


Here's a book from 1903 describing various techniques to exploit direct solar heat.

As well as hot air and steam engines for producing rotary motion, there are means to pump water using an ammonia absorption process, a solar furnace for melting small amounts of cast iron.

It also touches on solar power as an energy source for sun-rich countries, where the cost of importing conventional fossil fuel (coal) was excessively prohibitive.

It seems that even 110 years ago, our forefathers were clearly thinking on ways to supply cheap energy in order to develop new territories and boost agriculture and industrial progress.

Matthew Lindquist said...

Thanks again for another very insightful and thought-provoking post- I personally had never heard of the Seebeck Effect.

Also, I don't know if you've already heard about this, but it seems like two of the items on your wish list might be able to be combined:

Which is to say, if Bio/Myco-remediation can be used to clear fallout, and with relatively low-tech methods(excepting the radiation suits, though I suppose those "ruinmen's leathers" might be made far into the deindustrial future), then this technique seems like it would be well worth passing on to future generations. We may not be able to effectively store and neutralize all of our radioactive waste, but we might be able to leave the tools for our descendants to do so. At least, that's the hope, right?

Paraquat Glyphosate said...


Regardless of your position on nuclear power (and waste), you ought to at least familiarize yourself with Generation IV nuclear reactors:

Important bullet points from that Wiki include:

Relative to current nuclear power plant technology, the claimed benefits for 4th generation reactors include:

* Nuclear waste that remains radioactive for a few centuries instead of millennia

* 100-300 times more energy yield from the same amount of nuclear fuel

* The ability to consume existing nuclear waste in the production of electricity
Improved operating safety

Fourth generation nuclear power plants are being developed in Russia, China and India. The USA had a prototype ready to roll in 1994 (called the IFR - Integral Fast Reactor) and then put a halt to all development. Western countries are falling hopelessly far behind in nuclear technology. South Korea currently has a thriving business in building Generation III+ nuclear powerplants which are a vast improvement on the Gen-2 designs used in the USA, but still not nearly so good as Gen-4.


Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@team10tim--You bring up something important. Having relatively safe and at least moderately effective methods of birth control makes a great difference to women's health and lifespans and to people's ability to match family size to resources. Birth control, if it's safe, does not have to be totally reliable to be of benefit. Without it, you have high infant mortality or infanticide, both of which are tough on everybody.

Birth control falls into several categories: physical barriers between eggs and sperm, measures to reduce female fertility, interfering with the implantation of the fertilized ovum in the uterus, and bringing on a menstrual period before the embryo has had much time to develop.

Physical barriers are the most straightforward, but given the differences in male and female priorities, an easily insertable and removable cervical cap dressed with some kind of spermicidal goop,
or just the goop in the form of a thick salve would be likely to get more consistent use than any kind of condom. Such things may already exist.

I've read that in hunter-gatherer societies, mothers suckle their babies for a long time and this reduces the speed at which they get pregnant again. If true, a safe method of hormonal birth control but one that is self limiting.

Regulating fertility by ingesting hormones is a brute force approach, overriding natural body functions. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Ayurvedic or Chinese or other systems of medicine have gentler methods of influencing female hormone production, that for cultural reasons aren't widely known. But I'm only speculating.

The original IUD was supposedly a pebble shoved through the cervix of a camel, so they've been around for a while. I have read that IUDs prevent implantation by causing some kind of irritation or low level inflammation of the uterine lining. Some designs of IUDs have a risk of perforating the uterus. Childbirth is dangerous too, so maybe the trade off is worth it.

The European herbs that are reputed to bring on an early miscarriage are effective in doses that are pretty poisonous, making the woman sick. So not suitable for routine use.

asotir said...

The best notion I learned from your posts was about "Green Wizardry." And I would thus offer this as your response to scientists and engineers:

"Refine the Green Wizardry projects of 40 years ago. Make them cheaper, more robust, safer, more efficient, and usable without electricity. Develop ways to make low-tech work better. And cultivate a respect and desire for low-tech where currently only the highest-tech sits enthroned."

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Deborah, that might be a worthwhile project. My main focus here is getting people to think about specific problems and their solutions in the context of the deindustrial age.

Leo, I'm not at all sure that's necessarily any safer than any other kind of genetic engineering. Plenty of naturally occurring processes in the wrong place could cause a lot of harm.

Seb, thank you! An excellent point.

Cherokee, stay safe. That's not a situation I'd want to be in.

Lei, based on what I've read, Krampus is primarily a tradition in Germany, Switzerland, and Poland -- does anybody go around with St. Nicholas in Bohemia? As for low-tech philology, no argument there; I got my training in languages along similar lines, and still do translations with a dictionary, a grammar, a spiral bound notebook, and a pen.

Phil, can you find some sources on that fluidics technology? Might be useful to know about. As for wattle and daub construction, by all means -- will you be submitting a paper on it?

MAI, whoever taught you debating tricks did a very good job. I've already pointed out that the issue I'm trying to raise focuses on whole system issues, and here you are trying to refocus the debate on some individual detail, where you can easily insist "Oh, sure, we can do X to solve that." It's like the situation of the guy who has $1000 a month in income and $1500 a month in expenses; you can always argue that he has enough money for any individual expense -- $750 for rent is less than that $1000 income, so is $150 for food, $200 for utilities, etc., etc., but at the end of the day the guy is still going broke.

Karim, will you be submitting a paper?

Flagg, I'd welcome a paper on that topic.

Jcummings, it's a good start, but falls below the minimum word count, and I don't see any citations of sources to back your claims. Please expand on it!

Walk in the Woods, thank you. You get today's gold star for paying attention to reality!

John Michael Greer said...

Anagnosto, making tomatoes nontoxic was done with ordinary selective breeding -- you know, the stuff that nature does all by herself, as Darwin showed. I'm much more comfortable with that than with throwing spider genes into plants, say. A paper on phytochelation, though, would be welcome.

Ando, everything I know of on introductory ecology that's in print these days is far too specialized, and very little is oriented toward the ordinary reader. Thus the wish list entry!

Ken, welcome to the Archdruid Report! Are you up for writing a paper on simple Stirling engines for the competition?

Ceworthe, glass is tolerably easy to make, and it makes a better glazing for solar box cookers anyway, so that'd be my suggestion there. As for ways to explain ecology to all, that's crucial -- I'll look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Girl, I know the area -- I wasn't that far north of there when I lived in Ashland, OR. Yes, low-tech ways of cleaning polluted water are important.

Ken, we can't uninvent the last 200 years, but information loss can do it for us; you might look up some day how much Roman technology vanished for centuries, or forever, with the coming of the Dark Ages. Information is no more durable than whatever material substrat carries it, and nearly all our information these days is on highly vulnerable substrates.

Richard, well, there have been plenty of ideas tossed around so far in the comments to this post -- do any of them catch your fancy?

Wall, will you be writing a paper on any of them?

Nick, will you be writing a paper on this? Remember, talk doesn't cook the rice, and spinning ideas on this comments page doesn't get any of these ideas any more attention than any other piece of internet chatter.

K amp C, funny! Still, it's an excellent metaphor. Have you ever tried grasping nettles? The old rhyme really is true:

"Gingerly you touch the nettle
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle
And it soft as silk remains."

There's a sense in which the coming of the deindustrial age is like that; for those who are willing to grasp it and do what must be done, it's going to be an immensely challenging, but also a fulfilling and even exciting time to be alive. Those who back away from it, on the other hand, and pretend that it can't hurt them if they don't believe in it, are likely to be on the early-and-often casualty list.

John Michael Greer said...

Tim, will you be writing a paper on deindustrial birth control? It's an issue that deserves attention.

Grebulocities, that sounds like a great topic for a paper.

Kathleen, I'm going to encourage you to do some reading and learn how to design and conduct a simple scientific study. That ought to be a basic part of anyone's education, right there along with logic. Give it a try!

Myriad, good. If there was a good straightforward way to sort out such questions, we'd be very far along. Still, Krampus is in the details...

Loch Wade, I have a very efficient apocalypse repulsor. It's called a sense of historical perspective, based on how many people have wasted how much of their lives insisting that the end is upon us, over and over again in the past.

Xhmko, your competition sounds both fun and useful! As for your projects, either or both of them could make good subjects for a paper for the Krampus Challenge...

Loch Wade, er, you need to do some reading in basic nuclear physics. No, you don't usually get a nuclear explosion if spent fuel rods lose their coolant; you get ordinary combustion, resulting in a lot of dangerous radionuclides scattered downwind. No, it won't wipe out most life on the planet, though it would kill a lot of people and other large vertebrates. One of the downsides of the internet is the sort of apocalypse machismo you see on so many forums -- "I can imagine a more devastating cataclysm than you can!" -- and that leads to inaccurate information of the sort you've repeated here. Mind you, I'm not disagreeing with you about the difference between intelligence and wisdom; to borrow a useful maxim from one of the traditions of which I'm an initiate, "Power without wisdom is the name of death."

Frank, I'm not sure. Perhaps you could look into it?

Ken, a lot of people a century ago were looking at the depletion of coal reserves and drawing sensible conclusions. The age of oil brushed that sort of thinking aside, with unwelcome results.

Matthew, that's certainly part of the hope. Myself, I'd like to see something done to decrease the amount of nuclear waste sitting around in cooling ponds, but that's another issue.

John Michael Greer said...

Paraquat, now go back and read the first sentence in that Wikipedia entry: 4G reactors are purely theoretical at this point. That means we have no idea how they'll actually perform in practice, how much they'll cost to build, or whether they're even practical. Are you familiar with the term "vaporware"? If not, you might want to look it up.

Asotir, that's certainly what I've been trying to say for a while; not sure how many scientists and engineers have been listening, though.

snoewchen said...

Call me a crazy misanthropist but when I watched a documentary about the situation in Tschernobyl 20 years after the disaster I suddenly discovered a positive side effect of that mess. If you are a reader who lived there or near Fukushima, please forgive me that point of view.
The side effect is that all of a sudden a vast area of land is given back to nature and all creatures that are unable to read the warning signs. Animals with a much shorter life span than humans (most of them) must not be as concerned about cancer after all. Unfortunately the warning signs will disappear eventually and another round of human suffering will begin. In the meantime, as animals lose out against 7 billion people, there are some places of refuge, even though radioactive...

JP said...

Wouldn't post-Roman Britain be a good place to look - meaning after the legions were removed and the contact with the Empire proper ceased?

It was somewhat stable during it's initial period of industrial decline (before getting smacked by invaders) and there may be some interesting patterns there.

wagelaborer said...

I was participating in a Green Drinks festivity, talking with like-minded people about alternative energy. A man sitting nearby challenged me about the feasibility of running our society on alternative energy. I agreed that we couldn't, and that we would have to give up things like leaving lights on in every empty building at night, along with the neon signs that have appeared on every building in town. (Some fast-talking Harold Hill neon salesman must have moved through our town, because in the last year many new businesses have acquired these signs, even a mortuary, which flashes pictures of the recently dead on theirs). He informed me that no one would give up their rights to all-night lighting because of fears of crime. Yet we had a derecho that knocked out electricity for days, with no attendant crime wave. Turns out that this guy was in charge of alternative energy for Ameren. Poor personnel decision, in my opinion. If people can't even imagine living without wasted energy, how can they imagine living without useful energy?
I have been expecting a collapse for decades. I moved to a place which had land, but was still walkable to work (although I never do), expecting a collapse in transportation before a collapse in the health care industry in which i work. Joke is on me, since the recent health insurance shake-up is clearly aimed at, (as I believe you recommended a while back), cutting back on costs by stopping health care for the elderly and sick.
I think that I will lose my job before the oil stops. Still, my fossil fuel consumption over the years has been much lower than my co-workers, who insist on living miles a way, in order to save on property taxes. I point out that they spend more on gas than I do on my higher taxes, but there you go.
In any case, I have been trying to learn how to "live off the land" for 18 years now, without success. I grew up in a suburb and never learned such skills. Plus, I live in one of the most biodiverse areas in the USA. As the biologist Haldane pointed out, that means a lot of beetles, and other creatures which love that which I plant.

Nick said...

"Remember, talk doesn't cook the rice, and spinning ideas on this comments page doesn't get any of these ideas any more attention than any other piece of internet chatter."

Quite true JMG, I will submit a paper on it. In the meantime I should have merely posted the link to Frank Shumans work. To point out that this has been done in the past and for a variety of external reasons was put aside before its time. Here is an article that tells a bit about the evolution of his work (though it gets his the technical details wrong on his low pressure steam engine)

Frank Hemming said...

In response to JMG's suggestion, I've had a further look at the Fluidyne pump information on Wikipedia. What had puzzled me in the past was that the Fluidyne seemed such a promising idea,invented as long ago as 1969, yet I hadn't heard of it being applied widely for irrigation or anything else. According to Morris Dovey at
there appear to be practical problems which he is now working on overcoming, but which prevented Fluidyne pumps being widely used.
I hope somebody finds this useful.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Re: Birth Control. An exploration of Queen Anne's Lace might be useful.

mallow said...

If anyone is writing on deindustrial contraception they should look at what's currently done in poorer countries. I think aid agencies or health charities teach women the rhythm method/fertility awareness and it's free and pretty effective if done right. Depends on male cooperation of course but I doubt that that problem will be any more resolvable in a deindustrial world than it is now. Speaking of which, safe abortions would have to be addressed by anyone dealing with the subject too, whatever their views on it, because it will continue to happen whether it's safe or not.

Breastfeeding isn't reliable contraception - it would have an effect on a population level but for an individual woman it's too variable to be much use. It depends on how often the baby feeds, whether they still night feed or not and on the mother's own natural hormonal variations.

Kathleen Reynolds said...

That's a fascinating article! Not only that, but I'm right in the middle of brewing my first-ever batch of that exact Egyptian beer it mentioned.

@JMG: Well, it seems serendipity has bitten again. I think I'll have to dig out my old ecology textbook (the experiments we actually did in class weren't particularly helpful, but I did do them), swab my sister's throat, and see if Texas bouza has the same properties as Egyptian.

I think the heal food store sells agar agar...

Jeff Clark said...

The combination of the Laws of Thermodynamics and White's Law in a Peak Oil world leads to an inescapable conclusion: The only way for technological progress to continue is to start cutting off unneeded regions and populations while concentrating specialized education, knowledge and technology in areas with access to food and energy. Sounds pragmatically vicious, yet it is already happening in rural areas, where hospitals (as an example) are closing or being downgraded and advanced medical care is concentrated in large and often distant urban areas. Access to government services is undergoing similar centralization. I've observed this happening in rural sections of the Midwest and Northeast for the past decade, and the trend, if anything, seems to be accelerating.

Rachel E Nice said...

Does the Science Council for Global Iniatives count as vaporware? I would appreciate your comments on the book "Prescription For the Planet" by Tom Blees

Ruben said...


Wright's Law being imperfect sounds like it is not a good candidate to be called a law.

And even without that, it will run into Tainter's Law of Negative Returns on Complexity.

Or of course, observable reality. The doubling of production of Atlantic Cod did not make the price drop, it made the price infinitely high--you can't fish for cod anymore. It looks like Bluefin Tuna is heading the same way, with individual fish selling for nearly two million dollars.

Your second link leads to a study which analyzed Wright's Law by looking at various technologies over a time period of between ten and 39 years. Which I must say, they should be ashamed to even call that a study. Production of steam locomotives has doubled countless times since they were invented, and yet how much would it cost to buy one today? They made a law by looking at datasets that gave them the answers they wanted.

John Michael Greer said...

Snoewchen, that's certainly one way to look at it.

JP, the challenge there is that we don't have that much information from immediate post-Roman Britain -- sparse references from other parts of the empire, and whatever you can get from archeology.

Wagelaborer, nah, Obama's health care "reform" is an attempt to force Americans to keep paying for double-digit annual increases in health care costs whether they can afford it or not. I look forward to seeing the excuses his supporters will come up with when working class American families start being forced out of their homes, because they can't afford to pay both rent and health insurance, and the law requires them to pay for health insurance.

Nick, good. My hope is that the anthology may bring some needed attention to technologies that could do some good during the Long Descent.

Frank, thanks for following up!

Lewis, interesting.

Mallow, are you interested in writing a paper on that?

Kathleen, good. "Auf denn! An's werk!"

Jeff, with each region you cut off from further technological progress, you also cut off a market that could help make further progress economically viable, and very often you also cut off resources that could go into the project of progress. Keep pursuing that strategy, and the number of people who continue to benefit from progress drops to zero, as does progress itself.

Rachel, I'll put the book on the to-read list. As for the Science Council for Sustainable Initiatives, it's just one more bunch of academics pimping for the nuclear power industry: indistinguishable, morally speaking, from the climate change denial lobby, or from all those chemists in the 1960s who insisted at the top of their lungs that Rachel Carson was a crank.

dragonfly said...

While I try and figure our what I may be able to contribute to fulfilling Krampus' wishlist, a few things come to mind that may be of interest to others:

1) Direct thermoelectric (Seebeck) conversion, like photovoltaic cells, enjoys the advantage of having no moving parts to wear out, unlike so many other methods of electrical generation. Further, for those worried about conversion efficiencies, this fascinating read may lend some perspective: Photosynthetic_efficiency

2) In the category of "cheap, easy to build, long working life", check out Minto's Wheel. A gussied-up version of the classic dipping bird, this thing requires no precision machining, and has no seals to wear out. Low speed, high torque, perhaps just the thing for a water pumping application.

3) Every one of us lives within safe distance of a functioning fusion reactor, that obligingly and at no cost, delivers roughly 90 billion megawatts of energy to the Earth's surface. Seriously.

mallow said...

JMG, I would be if the baby ever decides to sleep for more than 3 hours at a time... She's an extremely adorable exhibit in favour of contraception!! I'm focusing on staying sane and keeping everyone alive. Then I think I should prioritize starting the garden, learning to cook, cutting our expenses and learning a useful skill so I can still keep her alive when the state goes bankrupt and our jobs go. I'd love to do something more intellectually stimulating but am trying to accept my limits right now.

ando said...

Thanks, JMG, now I know what is wrong the current intros to Ecology. I can start researching the manual.

Drew Latta said...

JMG - An long-time environmental engineer reader here.

I'm not sure if you've touched on it before, but the basic knowledge of getting clean water and treating it if you don't have the option for a clean water source is important.

I see that there are posts here touching on some of the more intractable consequences of industrial pollution - heavy metals and radionuclide contamination.

However, I think that discussion is missing the forest for the trees. The biggest long-term problem with water will always be to secure a drinking water source free of microbial/parasitic contamination. Or in cases that one isn't available due to geology or other location, ways to practically treat water to knock back water-borne disease (cholera, dysentary, typhus, et cetera).

For example, a passable chlorine (hypochlorite) generator could be fashioned from a battery, a salt-water solution, a separator of some sort, and a dissolution-resistant positive electrode. I think some tweaking would be needed for the separator and the positive electrode in the absence of modern technologies. Currently the anode (positive end) is made from precious metals coated onto relatively resistant titanium, but I suspect that lead dioxide could fit the bill in a de-industrial situation (PbO2 is a good conductor, easily made, and highly insoluble). I don't know much about the separator at this point, and what natural or readily available de-instrustial materials could be used to fashion one.

I'm toying with taking you up on this essay on the subject of attaining safe drinking water and practical water treatment.

Lauren said...

Some good news about bioremediation.

From the New York Times article last week on vermicomposting

"Worms were said to be Darwin’s favorite organism, and for good reason: it seems they can break down most anything. Studies have shown they can detoxify soil with cadmium, lead and other heavy metals."

I have a small commercial-sized for personal use vermicompost system. It is a bit or work , but worth it.

latheChuck said...

To Flagg707: See the Wikipedia article on "Kearny Fallout Meter" for a low-tech approach to measuring radioactivity. I built one, and found that it indicated "no hazardous level of ionizing radiation present", which was good. It's a simple project, but unless you have a convenient source of dangerous levels of radiation, it's probably not going to do anything particularly interesting once it's built.

latheChuck said...

JGM: Low-tech HF radio might be used again for commercial communications, but not by "ham radio" operators. That wouldn't be consistent with their licenses, of course. Whether or not the FCC (or anyone else)will be in a position to enforce licensing of amateur vs. commercial radio stations is a question worth some thought. Decline need not mean anarchy.

Without spectrum management (that is, allocating frequency channels to specific uses), a radio system can become useless due to interference from other stations. If a reliable link is to be established, the receiver needs to know where to listen. Ham radio has very few specific frequencies, though certain users have such strong habits that they have de-facto ownership of the frequency (such as the maritime amateur net on 14.300 MHz, or W1AW's list of frequencies). But these are essentially "water holes" where many hams can gather. To run a wireless telegraph carrying 3rd-party traffic would work best licensed to a small set of frequencies (like ShipCom LLC has).

Within our lifetimes, ham radio will probably best be used to share informal observations, ham to ham, as well as coordinating disaster response when existing emergency communications systems aren't working (whether destroyed by the disaster, or abandoned due to budgetary limits).

Riban said...

Regarding the question of low tech contraception, may I suggest vasectomy? Cheap. Simple. Effective.

Speaking of which, we don't have a resource problem. We have a population problem.

Which is the subject of my forthcoming book: How We Came To Understand The Exponential Function After All The Lichen Was Gone.

Innovate to propagate reproductive self restraint.

John Michael Greer said...

Dragonfly, I somehow managed to miss learning about Minto's Wheel until now. What a brilliant little bit of technology! I note that it has low speed but high torque, thus would be very well suited to water pumping and a good many other chores -- use a passive solar water heater to heat the water on the lower end, and you've got a very nice prime mover that will grind grain, power a sawmill, or do any number of other things on the output of the only fusion reactor our species is ever going to have handy.

Mallow, got it. I think that earns you a pass.

Drew, I'd welcome an article along those lines. My concern with heavy metals and radionuclides in water is simply that conventional methods of purification, valuable as those are, don't touch them.

Lauren, interesting. Darwin's book on earthworms is still very much worth reading, by the way.

Chuck, granted. I'm thinking over the longer run.

Riban, no, we have both a population problem and a resource problem. Any rate of use of nonrenewable resources, however small, is unsustainable over the long run.

phil harris said...

My reply to Deborah @Unknown seems to have gone to cyberdust. Here are some references to properties of hemplime. I will produce a paper on wattle & daub, and its latest reincarnations. It will be a compilation of working examples already devised by others. Hemp 'shiv' has some very useful properties.

I was not clear enough about hemplime construction.
The material is cast round a load-bearing wood frame and can go as high as the wood frame, which could be several stories. The material is not 'mud', nor is it a 'panel' (unlike original 'wattle & daub'): think of it as very lightweight concrete with special properties, and needs to only bear its own weight within each segment of the frame. The wood frame takes all the rest of the strain, the roof and the interior floors. A wall is usually about 300 - 350mm (>1 foot) thick.
The material properties are briefly well-described here in a test construction. Apparently this structure performed well during a period of (for Britain) intense cold 2 years ago. A 2012 technical Report from the study is downloadable here:

I have seen a 3-storey much larger structure used as auditorium for teaching and conference at Wales Institute for Sustainable Education.

phil harris said...

Fluids for controls – analog or digital substitutes.
You asked for a reference.
The system I saw was back in 1974 in Edinburgh, Scotland. It worked to ‘read’ environmental sensors (temperature and humidity) and issue ‘programmed instructions’ to regulate the complex interactions of heat and humidity and lighting sources in plant growth chambers. The controls worked, but the environment and main equipment specifications were wrong, so the whole thing went into litigation and the interesting bit, the fluidics control boards, were lost AFAIK. The technology was superseded by electronic analog and then digital control devices.

I have just found this pdf via google and there is a Wiki entry as well.
Here is a quote from the 1983 pdf file
[LPA: laminar proportional amplifier]
“Not only can the LPA be used as an analog device, but also LPA's with positive feedback can be used to perform most of the common digital logic functions, as Mon [ref 7] has demonstrated. Preliminary test results indicate that power consumption systems can be reduced by a factor of 10 or more if LPA's are substituted for equivalent turbulent digital logic elements.”

The Wiki entry is here


Lei said...

JMG: Yes, we have St. Nikolas with an angel and a kind of devil ("čert", Teufel in German). It is the čert that either gives the child coal, potatoes, and if it is especially bad behaved, he can put it in his sack a take away down into the hell.

Max said...

My votes for low tech are:

An anaesthetic you can grow, that is better than spirit alcohol

and a design for a bicycle or equivalent, that is 90+% wood by weight, which may include:

*alternatives to pneumatic tyres (eg very large diameter lightweight wheels ) and

*alternatives to low friction ball bearings (eg primitive roller bearings)

*waterproof clothing you can grow(I live in Scotland)

I wonder how any low tech electricty will be used past the slavage-junk era. Extruded plastic insulation will be difficult to replicate, and electricity likes to leak.

anagnosto said...

Dear JMG my comment about poisonous tomatoes in relation to transgenic plants is that there is much more that can be done than adding "spiders genes". You can remove, for example, dangerous lectins from legumes that cause bloating in human and cattle in just one season, not generations. Or you can reinforce the plant inmunitary system (yes they have one) in an hereditary fashion, making innecesary the toxic products that are spread nowadays. Although this of course is of no interes to agrobiochemical industry. From my viewpoint the real problem with OMGs is that many metabolic routes are interconnected, and when you modify something, you can easily get unexpected results. We do not know enough yet. But this is also how evolution has worked, and now is certain than non-man-made transgenesis, the exchange of genes across species and phyla has been very usual. Bacteria that use plants originated genes and viceversa, often with viruses as vehicles. The best point but also the worst point of transgenic beings is that they can remain extant after the technology that made them possible has dissapeared.
In respect to your question, plants can be engineered to stand toxic molecules by deactivating and restraining their access to vital parts. Knowledge on the mechanisms that could move those compounds to "safe" areas (fruits or epidermal hairs) is still in its infancy but growing fast. In USA something you should be watching carefully is the aquifers contamination by arsenic.

JP said...

" Any rate of use of nonrenewable resources, however small, is unsustainable over the long run."

Plus, the fact that exponents run away from each other over time is generally not understood by most of the population.

Did I point out that Jeremy Grantham suspects that we are at zero economic growth anyway?

I really like his investment letters.

Gary Rowe said...


After reading your article I was inspired to respond to your challenge. There was a blog post that I had been meaning to write for a long time and your post gave me the push to put aside time to get it all down.

My humble offering is "How Bitcoin can contribute to resilient communities" and covers the background of why resilient communities are needed, a little monetary theory, a fair amount of technical description of Bitcoin and finally what Bitcoin brings to the mix.

It comes in at about 5.5K words, and can be found here:

I hope you're able to take the time to look over it and perhaps offer some feedback.

In the meantime I'll look forward as ever to Thursday morning.

Iuval Clejan said...

I submitted a paper to Permaculture Activist several years ago about building and using a Kelvin Generator to power an electric fence (to keep bear and deer out of a garden in the Ozarks). They didn't publish it as far as I know (saying they didn't have a technology issue coming up, but I might have made some snide remarks about high tech permaculture and its uncomfortable relation to industrial technology). The generator was made of junkyard parts--metal wire, coffee cans and 55 gallon steel drums, a bit of plastic or rubber hose, and fishing line. It was powered by falling water, yet had no moving parts. It generated voltages higher than 100KV, but currents small enough not to kill a human or animal that touched it. It had several things that could be improved--such as a needed electrostatic servo mechanism to turn off the water when the charge was sufficient for a zap. We had an essentially "unlimited" supply of water from a spring, so I didn't work on that. More vexing was the low output impedance, which meant that weeds, spider webs and excessive humidity could effectively short out the device. I could think of a solution that required more flow of water. But ultimately, we decided to transplant a bunch of trifoliate orange hedge around the garden, and that seemed a better solution, though less sexy.
Which brings me to what I really want to say: with the exception of new problems like nuclear and other toxic waste, and using materials from junkyards, we do not need new technologies. What we need is to network old technologies (and more difficultly, people who are skilled at these technologies). These already have all the constraints we need (locality, energy density, etc). It's mostly an information problem, but a networking type of information, a wholistic, system type of information, as well as recovery of particular trade tricks. Hundreds of different trades need to be renetworked. For example, today's blacksmith will need to be retrained to work with local materials. Today's cooper is non-existant and will need to be resuscitated from libraries. But I don't think it makes sense to do any of this purely in isolation, we have an ecosystem of technology similar to all complex systems. Pragmatically, since I have been unsuccessful so far in getting hundreds of craftspeople, farmers, scientists and engineers together like Oppenheimer did with the Manhattan project, I do work on one problem at a time. I devised a simple way to feed rocket cooking stoves less often. I devised a way to heat up passive solar water without pumps and antifreeze (but not in the dead of winter). I built water cisterns out of plywood, two by fours and tarps. I am working on direct transfer of pedal (human) power to previously electrically powered tools. I will probably soon work on grinding eye-glass lenses out of recycled glass with pre-industrial tech (I've been just looking at the theory so far for this--Baruch Spinoza is an inspiration to use good face masks). My friend is making the frames out of wood. Whatever I do feels like it's not enough and it won't do much good in isolation. It would be so much more efficient to find the people who already know how to do these things, figure out how to reskill them so they network with each other rather than the industrial ecosystem, and get them to train us in the particular crafts. Anyway, would it be better to submit the Kelvin Generator article (if I can retrieve it from PCActivist, I seem to have lost it), or the Luddite Manhattan Project proposal? I also have had ideas about GMO algae producing ethanol, but given that I actually know how to genetically transform an organism (and have done so with nematodes), it looks like too risky a project, not just in the ecological way.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, excellent -- I'll look forward to your paper. Thanks also for the info on fluidics: fascinating stuff.

Lei, your čert is an exact equivalent of Krampus. In the old days, did guys dress up in čert costumes and go roaming down the village streets, thoroughly drunk, on December 4, the eve of St. Nicholas' day?

Max, are you going to write a paper on any of those?

Anagnosto, fair enough. As for arsenic contamination, that's very true -- a lot of arsenic-based pesticides were used here, especially in the cotton growing regions.

JP, no, you didn't! Thanks for the link -- he's quite correct, and I don't think anybody has yet started to come to grips with exactly what a permanent negative-growth economy is going to mean.

Gary, excellent. Thank you. Would it be possible for you to rewrite it without hyperlinks, putting in footnotes suitable for print publication, and then post a comment here labeled "not for posting" with your email address? That way I can contact you, you can drop me the Word file, and the contest has its first serious entry.

Iuval, very nearly any of the projects you've mentioned would make excellent themes for papers. I have a slight preference for the Kelvin generator, but it's slight.

GawainGregor said...

Thank you for another inspired and inspiring composition. I will take you up on the challenge and submit a paper covering use and development of bio-char in local agriculture. I have some results to report from the past two years and will have a third by the deadline.
In reading the article and comments, it occurs to me that one science not considered is that of psychology. It seems obvious that "human nature" as expressed today is at the core of many of our difficulties. Bernays was able to prey on this nature and institutionalize mass consumption. I wonder how cultivation of our better nature: contentment, compassion, altruism, patience etc., might influence the new reality. A study of the resultant economy should reveal new values expressed in terms quite different than common today.


MAI said...

JMG said:

"MAI, whoever taught you debating tricks did a very good job. I've already pointed out that the issue I'm trying to raise focuses on whole system issues, and here you are trying to refocus the debate on some individual detail, where you can easily insist "Oh, sure, we can do X to solve that." It's like the situation of the guy who has $1000 a month in income and $1500 a month in expenses; you can always argue that he has enough money for any individual expense -- $750 for rent is less than that $1000 income, so is $150 for food, $200 for utilities, etc., etc., but at the end of the day the guy is still going broke"

I don't think I've ever been taught much in the way of debating tricks but I have been taught various forms of analysis. And I've spent a lot of time developing expertise in applying these techniques.

You need to be careful in applying reductionist techniques when teasing out the important threads in a system. JMG uses a nice illustration of the dangers of not considering a factor as it applies to a system in entirety. Bu there's a simple method to ensure you don't fall vicrim to this error. Add up the values for the factor of interest across the system as well as for the component. In the example JMG uses you would look at the input (cash) and sum up cash required for all of the outputs (rent etc) to ensure there wasn't a shortfall.

The Peak Oil community generally holds as a priori assumption that complicated manufacturing techniques won't survive reduced supplies of fossil fuels. But an a priori assumption - at least in this problem domain - is only really justified when the assumption clearly flows from observable fact. Just because some complicated manufacturing processes currently use fossil fuels doesn't mean that fossil fuels are necessary for these manufacturing processes. It just means that we've tended to use these fossil fuels as they've been cheap and handy.

A much stonger position would flow from a deeper analysis of the, for example, PV manufacturing process showing how some aspect of the process depends critically on the availability of cheap fossil fuels and that this would be infeasible without their presence. I haven't seen such an analysis. Without this analysis, the whole basis for stating decline is inevitable is, IMO, shaky. It's not difficult to put together a case where the energy requirements of a PV manufacturing plant and its supply and distribution chains and can be satisfied by a mix of renewables or, perhaps, use fossil fuels as one of the remaining fossil fuel consumers in a society ruuning at, say, over 80% renewable energy supply.

How to allocate available energy in a society with much tighter energy availablity would play an important role. There is effective energy allocation in our current society through cost, various government actions such as taxes and subsidies etc Allocation in a tighter energy system might have to be along more in line with the situation that exists in wartime, blockades, sanctions etc Would societies be prepared to accept allocation of the limited liquid biofuels available to run tractors, mines, distribution networks etc rather than personal use? Time will tell!

Joseph Nemeth said...

My first wife's uncle was mayor of the town of DuBois, WY, and he once spent time in jail for failure to pay federal income taxes. As it turns out, most of his "income" during that time was in barter or gifts: in addition to being mayor, he was also the town handyman and several other things, and people paid in what they had to offer -- pie, eggs, lumber, nails. Probably cash, too, and he kept receipts for none of it, hence the problem with the IRS. Their entire small-town economy ran on gift and barter as much as (or more than) finance.

A big factor driving our collective decision-making is our system of economic accounting, which determines the return on investment for any decision. What is "practical" or "profitable" depends entirely on how we account for it.

Communities that go back to a cash/barter/gift economy -- and most of the smaller ones will, having no other options -- will account for value differently than world-girdling financial systems run by bankers.

As people come up with technologies for this exercise, it might be useful to think a bit about the way different communities will account for the value of the technologies, which does involve things like availability of energy and resources, but has at least as much to do with how people quantify their wealth and success.

Gift economies, in particular, thrive on giving things away and collecting ties of obligation implied by acceptance of the gift. I've never lived in one, myself, so I can't expand much on what it's like.

A thought.

Jim R said...

As for bioremediation, my sister-in-law actually did that, back in the '70s, when we thought we could improve the world. Turns out that ragweed, the old nemesis of allergy sufferers, does a splendid job of collecting lead. She told me the reason for this specificity in plant-physiology terms, but the details are not particularly important. Starting with a brown field, you grow the plants, harvest them when they complete their life cycle in the fall, then dry them and ever-so-carefully combust them, retaining the ashes for safe disposal. My sister-in-law had to give up on environmental science, because there is no way to make a living at it.

Other bioremediation systems will need to be developed going forward, as the people of Japan are gradually disabused of the longstanding cultural notion that there is such a place as 'away', and that it centers on the Pacific Ocean. Obviously that effort will not begin for a few years yet. This side of the pond it may take even longer. Hopefully the proportion of I-129 in the environment will remain low enough that isotopic separation from I-127 will not be required. (but note that the nuclear industry did not blink at isotopic separation of U-238 from U-235 -- it was done regardless of cost) I have a sort of fantasy of karmic justice in which the movers and shakers of nuclear power, and their descendants for a couple generations, are chained to the bioremediation harvesting machines and the iodine calutrons, toiling away to save the thyroids of generations to come.

If I ran the circus, the near future would be powered primarily by good old Silicon PV, and power stored in Nickel Iron batteries. My reasoning is this: 1) these are common elements. If they are simply abandoned to entropy and the weather, they will leave neither toxic nor radioactive hazards behind; 2) they scale down nicely to the local and individual level; 3) they involve fewer conversion steps than other technologies; 4) they are lower-tech than you might think. Although microprocessors and solar cells both use the same properties of silicon, PV-grade silicon only requires five-nines purity, while microprocessors require nine-nines. Four orders of magnitude. There are conventional chemical processes which may achieve five-nines purity without going to the lengths employed by semiconductor makers. PV cells are bulk-doped, not requiring precision masking, ultrahigh vacuum, nor ultrapure chemicals. And finally, PV can be counted on to achieve 10% to 15% efficiency in converting sunlight. Photosynthesis only manages about 1%.

For the really long term, as an aid to those raccoon metallurgists who will need it, perhaps we could deeply engrave a stainless steel plaque with a phase diagram for iron-nickel-carbon ... this, along with an explanation of the properties of the different phases, would have been a great help to iron age metallurgists over the last couple millennia.

Finally, one item from chemistry that would be useful to remember is that the cellulose molecule can be dismantled. Before the era of petrochemistry, the semi-natural polymers cellophane and rayon were made using this technology. But before the late 1900s, the only usable cellulose fibers were the all-natural ones like cotton and linen. I would think polymers derived from wood pulp or bagasse to be a useful low-energy technology.

Glenn said...

John Michael Greer said...
Anagnosto, making tomatoes nontoxic was done with ordinary selective breeding --

As far as I know, the fruit of the tomatoe has never been toxic. The stems and leaves yes, the fruits no. When green they contain small amounts of toxins, but the only fatalities have been consumption of the leaves.

If such breeding was ever done, it was well before European contact.

Marrowstone Island

GRaham said...

Somebody mentioned non-electrical refrigeration. Actually a very simple low-tech method of refrigeration does exist in the form of a pot-in-pot cooler (also known as a zeer pot) which relies upon the principle of evaporative cooling. It is in widespread use in parts of Africa. More about it here:

Another similar device is the Coolgardie safe which was widely used in Australia before the advent of electrical refridgeration, and works on the same principle:

Obviously these have some limitations, such as not working well in humid environments, and requiring water etc. But they are very simple and low-tech and fairly effective.

latheChuck said...

Re: Max's desire for waterproof clothing you can grow. See "oilcloth". Described in Wikipedia as "semi-waterproof", it's just heavy cotton cloth soaked in linseed oil (from flax). As the linseed oil oxidizes, it becomes solid, yet remains flexible. It's waterproof enough for tents and raincoats, though maybe not for diaper covers.

My copy of "Henley's Twentieth Century Formulas, Recipes and Processes: (Money Making Facts for Everybody)" 1913 edition, has about nine pages on waterproofing fabric (including a description of the processing of raw rubber (just in case you need to remove leaves, sticks, and/or sand from your raw material. (I think we'd describe this as "latex", now, to distinguish it from the synthetic rubber (which was invented right about the time this book went to press.))))

So there you have two plant-based materials for waterproof clothing: linseed oil, which can be grown in temperate climates, and latex rubber, from the tropics. You can also get some small amount of latex from the milkweed plant.

sgage said...

With regards to tomatoes, and the toxicity thereof...

Tomatoes were never toxic. A New World "discovery", when they were introduced to Europe in the 16th Century it was noted that they were in the same botanical family as the Deadly Nightshade. Which they are, along with potatoes and eggplants and tobacco and many more. But they weren't toxic.

People would eat them in public on a dare. No one got sick. They were also known as 'love apples', so there was a little aphrodisiac spin action going on as well.

Now, unless you grow your own, they're pink hard tasteless masses of cellulose. In other words, Progress!

PS - there has to be a better way of confirming 'not robot' status than these absurd captchas. This may be my last post here - I just can't read the foolish things. Google can go to hades as far as I'm concerned.

AMT said...

John, we have just published the translation to Spanish of the first part of your series: "How it could happen":

Thanks again for your permission. Regards.

Max said...

Max, the first thing on my wish list is the statement of a problem. The second is anything but vaporware -- did you notice that I mentioned there's already been quite a bit of experimentation done? As for the relevance of cleanup, the generations that will come after ours have already been guaranteed a messy, toxic environment, and I don't think it's a bad idea to help get them some tools to help clean it up. As for the third option, I agree that it may just be the most important -- and I'm wondering if you'd be willing to take the lead in making it happen. Somebody in the scientific community needs to do so!


Thank you for your response! I need to be a bit careful about what I said earlier about my views on the technologies you proposed. I did not intend to say that they were vaporwares or in development. My problem with these “clean up the mess” technologies is that they are misapplied. It is good to have them, but practically, I think they will be misused. Sort of an adaptation of Jevon's Paradox: having technologies to clean up after messes allows us to make bigger messes. There have been psychology studies on people that determine that the safer people feel, the more likely they are to take risks. It's called “risk compensation.” For example, drivers may drive more recklessly, less carefully, when wearing a seatbelt (although this is a horrid example, seatbelts are more likely to protect you in any case). Maybe a better example is of wearing helmets while playing sports, or gloves when boxing. Boxers have such concussion and mental problems because the gloves cushion the hands, allowing the other boxer to throw harder and more reckless punches.

I think this applies to technologies that clean up nuclear waste, or poisoned soils. The head of Monsanto, or one of our country's nuclear plants, would use the fact technology is available to clean nuclear waste or sanitize soil, to ramp up production and create more waste, or poison more soils – as a result, our amount of nuclear waste or unhealthy soil actually goes up!

These technologies are wonderful to have, no argument there. But they need to develop concomitantly with a new way of thinking, a method of thinking that understands restraint, cutting back, and can foresee and transcend Jevon's Paradox.

As for science communication, I have a long history (well, only 3 years) of teaching college level discussion sections, tutoring, and science outreach to elementary schools. I am currently assisting in teaching a course on climate change at the University of Washington, and find teaching growing more and more interesting by the day than my research! We will have to see how my career aspirations change as I shift more towards the communication realm. It would be hard to change the prevailing mindset of the general public. It remains to be seen if I were to become a “leader” in science communication – a truly humbling thought.

Thank you,

Karim said...


I am seriously thinking about submitting a paper.Even if it is not selected it is a worthwhile exercise in itself.

LunarApprentice said...

Hello JMG, Kieran, and all:

Regarding Geiger counters, there are published manuals on how to make them. I happen to have to have a copy of an experimental physics lab manual, circa 1938, which has a chapter on just that, reprinted by Lindsay Publications I'll come back with the title as soon as I can get to my stack, especially if anyone expresses interest.

A few months ago, I chimed in here with an idea to not only detect radiation, but to detect and measure the radionucleide species such as iodine 131, cesium 137, struntium, plutonium, etc. Presently, there are $10,000 instruments such as gamma-ray spectrometers that are used to do this job, and I think it is possible to to gin up a DIY version now from commercially available hardware for around $2000. But this technology is not something that can be produced at a workshop level in a de-industrial future. So I think a more realistic method would have to be based on a diffusion cloud chamber as a detector. This was a key investigational tool in the pioneering days of sub-atomic physics and cosmic rays. Many if not most of us have encountered them on some point in our lives in a classsrom, or a science museum such the one in Los Angeles at the Griffith Park Planetarium and Observatory (I last saw it 25 years ago where it demonstrated evidence of cosmic rays. I don't know it that exhibit still remains).

To use a cloud chamber to assay radionucleides, you need procedures to collect and prepare your sample from air/water/soil/what-have-you, and you need to quantify how your sample reflects your environment. Then you need to place the prepared sample into the cloud chamber, and make timed measurements or observations of the tracks seen. You probably also will need to augment the apparatus with electric or magnetic fields, calibrated barriers and so one to get a sense of the particle charges and energies. Then the data needs to be organized to allow the investigator to compare his/her data with reference values to allow attribution of specific radionucleides to the data, and also determine the absolute quantity of each radionucleide in the sample. Finally, the investigator must calculate the the concentration in the environment of each radionucleide.

In addition to the intrinsic value of the activity, I think it would also make a good vehicle for the preservation of scientific reasoning.

By far the biggest technical difficulty is the requirement to cool the cloud chaber to cryogenic temperatures. Historically this has been done with dry ice, but I think tanks of pressurized carbon-dioxide will be a tall order in the de-industrail future. I think the most promising technology will be Peltier (thermocouple) coolers powered by a pedal-driven automotive alternator; those coolers can run at 12 volts.

I have already begun preparing a white paper with more detail for JMG's contest, I'm hoping I can it to a standard appropriate for publication.

Lei said...

JMG: Yes, it - what may be a bit surprising - this custom is still alive, even in big cities. It is however usually more civilized now, and only a smaller portion of those people are drunk. Of course, it is in the process of integration into the present cosumerist culture.

steve said...

Late to comment, so don't know if anyone is still here to see this. But I'm just here to say that, if you are a fan of Krampus, seek out the Finnish movie "Rare Exports from the Land of the Original Santa Claus":

Good to hear your plans for 2013 JMG - but where's our systems theory Dao de Jing? Still waiting... ;)

(If you've gone off the idea, let us know; maybe someone - maybe me? - will pick up the baton)

Jim R said...

... meant to say "before the late 1800s ...

RPC said...

In Bohemia, St. Nicholas (a dignifed archbishop) is accompanied by an angel and devil to administer the appropriate consequences. I hadn't heard of Krampus before; rolling up the good and bad into one character seems more congenial to a Druidic outlook than the polarities of Christianity.

void_genesis said...

What is the time line for submissions? I would love to put together a review article on the minimal tools, reagents and techniques needed for low-tech phage therapy, however I am currently busy for a few weeks.

For what it is worth I think that genetic engineering has a 50:50 chance of decoupling from its industrial base to become a purely biological science (and a fairly irrational one at that) during the energy descent. For example an Italian group has found that sperm cells readily take up and incorporate naked DNA when washes in a few simple buffers. I could probably put together an article on the feasibility of low tech genetic engineering as well if time allows.

John Michael Greer said...

Gawain, excellent! I'll look forward to your paper. It will be good to see something other than fact-free cheerleading about biochar -- and if the results support the claim that it'll help, all the better.

MAI, yes, I figured you'd circle back around to insisting that "the peak oil community generally" (i.e, a straw man of your own creation) has "an a priori assumption" (i.e., you haven't taken the time to follow up on the many extensive analyses of the subject) about the lack of long-term sustainability of PV manufacture. No doubt if I take the time to challenge that, you'll go back to insisting that I name the one part of PV manufacture that isn't sustainable, or some other argument you've already run here. Enough; you're wasting my time and that of this blog's readers, and that's not something I suffer gladly.

Joseph, that's an excellent point.

Jim, you know, a detailed account of that ragweed process would be a worthwhile submission to the contest. Does your sister-in-law still have her notes?

Glenn, duly noted.

Graham, will you be submitting a paper on the subject to the contest?

Chuck, you win this month's competition for handling stacked parentheses!

Sgage, sorry about that! I have no control over the Captchas -- I need a way of filtering out spambots, and that's what Blogger makes available.

AMT, many thanks! I posted your comment because I know I have a fair number of readers from the Spanish-speaking countries, and thought they might want to know about this.

Max, understood -- but I think there's still importance in getting the technologies into the hands of people in the future, since one way or another they're going to be left with the mess.

Karim, excellent! I'll look forward to your paper.

John Michael Greer said...

Apprentice, if it needs editing help, I can certainly work with that. The important thing is to make it useful to people who don't have extensive technical training. I'll look forward to your paper!

Lei, I'm glad to hear it's still being done!

Steve, it's struggling along, mostly on the back burner -- I haven't given up on the project, it's just that there are only so many hours in a day.

RPC, interesting. As far as I know, though, no Druids were involved in the making of Krampus!

Void, all submissions need to be in my hands by November 1, 2013. That should give you some time to work on it.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Max--I looked up the history of ether on Wikipedia and discovered that it was first made in the sixteenth century and perhaps even earlier.

"The compound may have been created by either Jābir ibn Hayyān in the 8th century[3] or Raymundus Lullus in 1275,[3][4] although there is no contemporary evidence of this. It was first synthesized in 1540 by Valerius Cordus, who called it "sweet oil of vitriol" (oleum dulce vitrioli)—the name reflects the fact that it is obtained by distilling a mixture of ethanol and sulfuric acid (then known as oil of vitriol)—and noted some of its medicinal properties.[3] At about the same time, Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, discovered ether's analgesic properties in chickens.[3] The name ether was given to the substance in 1730 by August Sigmund Frobenius."

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Iuval Clejan--In America, there are a couple of models for a residential gathering of craftspeople, farmers, scientists and engineers. One is an artists' colony.

During the Arts and Crafts movement around the turn of the last century, a few of these were self-supporting for a while. Craftsman Farms, founded by Gustav Stickly in 1908 in New York State, sold furniture, pottery, lamps, desk sets, and so forth, and published a magazine containing designs and directions for do-it-yourselfers.

More often, artists' colonies are subsidized by a wealthy patron or foundation grants, but not on such a grand scale as the Manhattan project. Artists' colonies tend to be invitational; rather than living at one indefinitely, it is common to be invited to stay for a limited period of a few months to a year, rather like scholars in residence.

A more democratic and newer development is a social movement called Makers, which takes home workshop projects made of cheap or salvaged materials to a more sophisticated level. There are Maker Faires where people demonstrate what they've made, and maker magazines. Some cities have warehouses where anybody can rent cheap studio space to do projects that are unsafe or impractical to work on at home. People of all ages and races, including schoolchildren, are doing this. I'm not involved in this movement at all; I only read about it, but it seems to be gathering steam.

MAI said...

JMG says:

"MAI, yes, I figured you'd circle back around to insisting that "the peak oil community generally" (i.e, a straw man of your own creation) has "an a priori assumption" (i.e., you haven't taken the time to follow up on the many extensive analyses of the subject) about the lack of long-term sustainability of PV manufacture. No doubt if I take the time to challenge that, you'll go back to insisting that I name the one part of PV manufacture that isn't sustainable, or some other argument you've already run here. Enough; you're wasting my time and that of this blog's readers, and that's not something I suffer gladly."

Looks like we're not going any further with this one so I agree there's no point in further discussion in this thread. As soon as the ad hominem text starts flowing it's clear there's going to be no further useful discourse on this item.

It's a shame, really. There are a few useful insights in the PO texts and just the way the issues are raised there can be useful to encourage a more thorough treatment of renewable energy approaches.

But the lack of a substantive basis for the analsyses you mention - they woudl benefit enormously from critical review and a healthy infusion of scholastic techniques - means that it's difficult for the academic community to take them seriously.

Anyway, I enjoy your continuing posts on energy efficiency and appropriate technology. And the series on apocalyptic types. A hoot!

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Jim R--Speaking of dismantling the cellulose molecule with century-old technology, today's (1/14/13) San Francisco Chronicle's front page above the fold story is about some chemical engineers at U.C. Berkeley reviving a fermentation process developed by Chaim Weizmann in 1914 to convert plant materials into acetone, butanol and ethanol.

The article was written by Peter Fimrite, this is the same Chaim Weizmann who later became the first president of Israel, the fermentation is accomplished by Clostridium acetobutylicum instead of yeast, and the process was used to manufacture cordite during WW I and synthetic rubber until 1965.

The current research, which has been going on for five years, applies a catalyst that converts the acetone and butanol into something like diesel fuel. One of the chemists, Harvey Blanche, is quoted as saying pretty much any plant material can be fermented, it's much more efficient than other methods, and predicting the fuel will be commercially available in five to ten years. British Petroleum is paying for the research.

The research was published in the November 8, 2012 issue of Nature, article behind a massive paywall, Nature's website summary is below. "With further improvement" is the rub.

New route from biomass to jet fuel

Using a method that combines biological and chemical catalysis, Dean Toste and colleagues demonstrate the efficient conversion of acetone–butanol–ethanol fermentation products into ketones via a palladium-catalysed alkylation. With further improvement, this process could provide a means of selectively manufacturing gasoline, jet and diesel blend stocks from lignocellulosic and cane sugars derived from biomass at yields close to the theoretical maxima.

«Oldest ‹Older   1 – 200 of 216   Newer› Newest»